Archive for January, 2012

Walk softly & carry a big philosophy club

January 19, 2012

This sign popped up all over campus yesterday, including here in front of my building.

The philosophy club is already laying plans to respond with

Philosophy Study

& Free Food

for thought

They usually meet on Thursdays at 5 in JUB 304, for those in the neighborhood. Gotta fight fire with fire. Or better yet, with intelligence and smart conversation. Maybe a film now and then. (Did you guys ever finish screening Life of Brian, Ryan?)

So in CoPhi today we’ll be looking at JMH‘s Olympian Gods, pre-Socratics, Democritus, Socrates & Plato, and Aristotle.

And later in A&P, it’s the first of two classes devoted to Cass Seltzer’s (Rebecca Goldstein’s) 36 Arguments, split five ways:

Arguments 1-6 , Cosmological Argument through Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws; 7-12, Argument from Cosmic Coincidences through Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness;  13-18, Argument from the Improbable Self through Argument from Free Will; 19-29, Argument from Personal Purpose through Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity;  30-36, Argument from Mathematical Reality through Argument from the Abundance of Arguments.

Where to begin? The gods, of course. Whatever happened to them, anyway?

JMH points out how human they were, Zeus and Hera and the gang. The pantheon was close at hand, just up the hill.

They were imminent in human life and in the environment: they brought meaningful dreams to sleepers and threw thunderbolts when they were angry. They even lived nearby, on Mount Olympus. They also gave an external cause for human inconsistency or illogic…

Cupid hurled his arrows and your fate was sealed. Gods and daemons pulled our predecessors’ strings and they felt relieved of responsibility for their world. The gods may have been flighty and injudicious and unpredictable but at least they imposed a kind of chaotic order on our human chaos, “invisible bvut made apparent by the authority of the poets.” Until a few pre-Socratic philosophers and Socrates himself came along to question authority of every kind, their rule stood unchallenged by mortal men. But “under the gaze of philosophy”…


Richard Dawkins has famously observed that

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic,  homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Outrageous,” say some. I say he’s too kind, and Seltzer/Goldstein say

The God of the Old Testament commanded people to keep slaves, slay their enemies, execute blasphemers and homosexuals, and commit many other heinous acts. Of course, our interpretation of which aspects of Biblical morality to take seriously has grown more sophisticated over time, and we read the Bible selectively and often metaphorically. But that is just the point: we must be consulting some standards of morality that do not come from God in order to judge which aspects of God’s word to take literally and which aspects to ignore. (Argument #16, “The Argument from Moral Truth”)

And that’s why we philosophers always go back to Plato’s Euthyphro, again and again, when we begin talking to students about philosophy, ethics and morality, and religion. (full textLast Days of Socrates)

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy [or good] is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

“Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality.”

Or you could take it on the authority of two guys called Jesus and Mo.


Another opening day

January 18, 2012

It’s deja vu, all over again: a quirk in the calendar has me meeting two classes for the first time today, after meeting the others twice already. CoPhi will be slightly out of sync, but you really can’t have too many fresh starts in life. Once again, let’s play ball!

A “non-traditional” student stopped by the office yesterday after class. He’s a freshman, like his daughter, and is excitedly waking at last to student life and the quest for wisdom. He’s questioning a lifetime of uncritical convention, in the workplace and in church. Hell hath no fury like a former fundamentalist who’s begun to think.

I usually dispute Plato’s claim that no one is really qualified to philosophize before life’s mid-point, but we all have to do what we can when we can. The enthusiasm for fresh starts is infectious, and especially appealing when caught from someone who’s been around the block. No one better appreciates the value of asking Why? No one gives better voice to the Jamesian insight that our habitual acts accumulate day by day and had best not be neglected.

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct…

I’m catching lots of enthusiasm in the A&P class too, where we also have more than a few non-trads. I think the presence of experienced students in the mix, alongside the next generation, may be what I like most about teaching at a large state school. When there are more opening days behind than ahead of you, it’s good to be reminded that experience is worth a lot. And curious, inquisitive experience is priceless.  Welcome back!

Doubt Quiz

January 17, 2012

Back to work, after the long weekend.

We’ll continue getting to know one another in CoPhi and A&P by perusing our posted introductions.

Then, we’ll talk about Jennifer Hecht’s “Scale of Doubt” Quiz.

Finally, we’ll divy ourselves into smaller discussion groups to begin trying to settle the universe’s hash (as William James once put it) more intimately. We’ll fail at “settling,” of course, as philosophers always have; but I’m sure we’ll succeed at hashing out some fun.

Here’s the quiz, from the Intro to Hecht’s (hereafter referred to simply as “JMH”) wonderful Doubt: A History. Some of the questions are a bit vague, even annoying, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Choose Yes, No, or Not Sure before peeking below the double lines to see one student’s responses* (I’ll preserve his semi-anonymity here by calling him “D”)  and Hecht’s proposed interpretation** of the results. We’ll discuss others in class and (if anyone wishes) online. As for my own quiz results, I’ll just say I’m pretty “hard-core,” but with a strong tinge of natural piety too. More like John Dewey than William James. [James & Dewey on natural piety]

The Scale of Doubt Quiz

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously make the universe?

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?

7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?

8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?

9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives after death, elsewhere or here on earth?

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings or of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident—a realm of higher meaning?

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

13. If someone were to say, “The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme or reason, and all life on earth but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to judged, noticed, or remembered,” would you say, “No that’s going a bit far, that’s a bit wrongheaded?”


**“If you answered No to all these questions, you’re a hard-core atheist and of a certain variety: a rationalist materialist. If you said No to the first seven, but then had a few Yes answers, you’re still an atheist, but you may have what I will call a pious relationship to the universe. If your answers to the first seven questions contained at least two Not Sure answers, you’re an agnostic, though not of the materialist variety. If you answered Yes to nine or more, you are a believer…”

*One student’s responses-

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

No. So far, none of the gods (way over 10,000 and counting) have ever demonstrated any credible evidence for their existence
outside of human personal conviction or faith, both of which are plagued by inconsistency and incoherence. That fact, compounded by each and every religion’s exclusive, incompatible claims about the divine, makes accepting Pascal’s Wager the beginning of a more extensive problem—not the solution.

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

No. There’s no evidence for this claim either. Smacks of presuppositional question-begging.

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

No. Positing a god as a sustaining force in the universe has no more of a provisional basis than Santa, fairies, the spaghetti monster, or the grand electric chicken (GEC). It only answers a mystery with a mystery and doesn’t get us anywhere.

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

No, and I still go by the old adage: nothing fails like prayer. For a rather crude but (I think) conclusive study, check out the recent experiment regarding the National Day of Prayer.

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?


7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?


8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?


9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

No, and I hope not. As for the Christian understanding of life after death, even playing guitar gets old after several hours so I couldn’t imagine playing a harp for eternity and having to constantly kiss the butt of some angry, jealous and insecure deity the entire duration. That very thought seems like “hell” to me.

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

No. Science has been the most effective way of furthering our understanding of the universe—as Lawrence Krauss puts it: “The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.” And in the words of Jacob Bronowski, “The sanction of experienced fact as a face of truth is a profound subject, and the mainspring which has moved our civilization since the Renaissance.” Feelings can be useful in establishing “ought,” but “is” is a question of science and I believe we have yet to close that gap.

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident — i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

No, not in the sense that there is something “out there” or supernatural beyond our own internal consciousness, feelings, personal experiences, and emotions. So far, evidence weights that the “world beyond” is literally in our heads. Also, one can find plenty of meaning right here on mother earth.

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

No. So far science and reason has given us the best explanation of the world as it exists and is continually progressing. Religion’s view of reality has been proven wrong time and time again. Periodically, scientific claims get proven wrong or the claims simply improved because of the mechanism within science (the scientific method), which is a catalyst for further improvement understanding. Religion, personal revelation, and wishful thinking are devoid of such self-correcting mechanisms.

I also don’t think anything supernatural (e.g., gods, ghosts, goblins, etc.) will be discovered outside of science, which is the current benchmark for human understanding about reality. If we were to discover something “supernatural,” it would simply not be supernatural. We could measure it, talk to it, test it, try to escape its wrath, plead with it or maybe even buy it a beer, but it wouldn’t be supernatural. It will be simply natural. Beyond our current understanding doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural—it just means we haven’t gotten there yet.

13. If someone were to say “The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered,” would you say, “Now that’s going a bit far, that’s a bit wrongheaded?”


Moreover, on the quiz I scored as hard-core atheist of the rationalist-materialist variety. Several of these answers could have easily (for me, being obvious) fallen within the “not sure” category. But in the context of Hecht’s “Doubt”—the existence of gods—I went with a resounding “no” to these answers due to my abhorrence and boredom with the god-of-the-gaps explanation for the unknowable. I don’t champion any of these answers with absolute certainty, and all answers were based on reason, evidence, and probability. I always remain open to examining further evidence and subjecting radical hypotheses to skeptical inquiry.

I reserve the right to be wrong about some of these questions and anxiously look forward to examining the evidence proving otherwise.

MLK Day-Are we there yet?

January 16, 2012

No, we’ve not reached the mountaintop of justice for all. Ours remains a deeply flawed species, our politics has degenerated to the extent that at least one popular GOP candidate openly avows that he would not have supported federal action on behalf of the transformative Civil Rights initiatives of the ’60s, our civic dialogue is often an embarrassment.

But yes, we’ve made strides. Doors have opened, opportunities have created hope where there was despair. We should celebrate those victories today and continue the climb to freedom. And we who study philosophy should recall Dr. King’s advocacy of constructive Socratic tension, and continue to ratchet the pressure for progress in this imperfect time.

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.  Letter from Birmingham Jail

We may not reach the promised land, but it shouldn’t be for not trying. As historian Taylor Branch wrote of King’s “last wish,”

How do we restore our political culture from spin to movement, from muddle to purpose? We must take leaps, ask questions, study nonviolence, reclaim our history.

So no, we’re not there yet. But asking questions and “creating tension in the mind” will move us on down the road. That’s the faith of a philosopher, and it’s why MLK makes the last cut on our timeline.  We can argue about whether his religion “improved” King, or whether his own virtuous character improved his religion. Just let Hitch have the last uncontroversial word, for once:

One wishes every day that Martin Luther King had lived on and continued to lend his presence and his wisdom to American politics.


Final score: nothing to nothing

January 14, 2012

I find myself thinking this morning about Lawrence Krauss and Billy Beane, an unlikely pairing unless you spend as much time as I pondering the mysteries of the universe and the diamond.

Krauss was on SciFri talking about his new book, spun out of his viral video, making the case that there’s enough something in “nothing” to make a universe. Or multiverses.

And Beane was in Moneyball, the movie based on Michael Lewis’s book.

What I think about Krauss is that he’s a terrific expositor of complicated astrophysical ideas, but I wish he’d stop taking potshots at philosophers. We’re his natural allies, and we’ve been thinking about nothing  a lot longer than he and his colleagues in the theoretical equation-mongering class have been. To his credit, though, he does talk to us… as he did in 2010 with Sam Harris and Simon Blackburn (and Steven Pinker) on science, morality, facts & values on SciFri. (We should return to this in March, in A&P.)

Beane, I think, at least as depicted in the film, is ultimately a sad figure who can’t celebrate his victories because he expects never to suffer big defeats. His daughter’s serenade is painfully accurate: “You’re a loser, Dad,” not because he loses but because he can’t fully accept his passing victories, can’t “enjoy the show.”

Still waiting to win the last game? None of us wins the last game, it all ends in a draw. Nothing-nothing.

The matter of spirit

January 13, 2012

We got off to a spirited start in A&P. The defenders of spirit and divinity were vocal, as were their critics. Everybody was civil, nobody nasty.  A good template to retain, as we meander through the semester’s challenge of understanding whether and how we can all be “good with/without god,” and how religion can be our “most important function” even if its tenets and creeds all turned out “absurd.”

I was struck by one exchange prefaced by someone’s statement that “I have a friend who is a materialist.” Don’t know if the speaker intended it, but it came across like “I have a friend who hates music” or “I have a friend who thinks the world sucks.” Of course everything depends on how we define our terms, but I find nothing in materialism to apologize for.

I mentioned in class the James obit in which it was claimed he’d  finally convinced himself that immaterial spirits exist, even if their demonstration may be permanently elusive. But his more characteristic attitude is firmly materialistic. Consider, for instance, his thoughts on the material spirit of our departed loved ones:

To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

Indeed. As Andre Comte-Sponville said in his Little Book of Atheist Spirituality: “Not believing in God does not prevent me from having a spirit.” And as I say: not believing in immaterial spirits does not prevent me from believing in people.


Opening Day! Let’s play two

January 12, 2012

It’s Opening Day of the Spring semester in two classes, and I’m excited.

Time to re-conjure Douglas Adams’ philosophical whale in the Intro course I’ve taken to calling “CoPhi”(because philosophy is a collaborative search for wisdom, and because– as William James said– “the pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of ‘co’…”

And Annie Dillard’s goldfish.

The argument clinic, of course.

And we’ll begin to sample what “philosophy” means to young people who’ve grown up in a mostly a-philosophical time and place. Anti, even. I’ll ask everyone:

1) What’s your definition or current understanding of philosophy?

2) What have you read, seen, or experienced lately (in books, film, pop culture, or “real life”)  that you consider interestingly philosophical? How so?

In “Atheism & Philosophy” (A&P) this afternoon we’ll begin

to explore the philosophical, ethical, spiritual, existential, social, and personal implications of a godless universe, and (quoting the new catalog description for PHIL 3310) to examine various philosophical perspectives on atheism, understood as the belief that no transcendent creator deity exists, and that there are no supernatural causes of natural events. The course compares and contrasts this belief with familiar alternatives (including theism, agnosticism, and humanism), considers the spiritual significance of atheism, and explores implications for ethics and religion.
Their question: are you a good person, with or without God? Some of them, I’m sure, will be using the course to sort out their final answer to that question. A suggested final report topic: write & present your testimonial account of “Why I am [am not] an atheist.”
My working hypothesis is that William James got it right in “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) when he said you don’t have to believe in a god to be good. We’ll see.
Our texts: Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt Quiz, Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments, Julian Baggini’s Atheism,          Louise Antony’s Philosophers Without GodsRussell Blackford’s 50 Voices, Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape, and possibly one additional text to be determined by class vote. The floor is open for nominations.


I think I’ll wear the baseball tie today, in celebration of the fact that we’re all still winners. Even Cubs fans. “It’s a long season,” said the philosopher Crash Davis, “you gotta trust it.” But, the Church of Baseball?

Sounds good to me. Let’s play two!

Happy birthday Willy James

January 11, 2012

Well this is certainly a significant day in history: the birthday of Aldo Leopold, William James, and my wife.  I should be making her breakfast in bed right now, and not discovering James’s Times obit from 1910…

Prof. William James of Harvard University, America’s foremost philosophical writer, virtual founder of the modern school of psychology and exponent of pragmatism, died of heart disease today at his Summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire.

Prof. James, who was 68 years old, had been in a critical condition since his arrival at Quebec from Europe a week ago. This morning he took a decided turn for the worse, lapsing into unconsciousness about noon. He died three hours later, surrounded by his wife, daughter, son, and his brother, Henry James, the author…

Prof. James was an active member of the Faculty of Harvard University from 1872 to 1907, when he announced his retirement in order to devote himself to his writing. A silver loving cup was given to him by the advanced students in philosophy when he met his classes for the last time on Jan. 22, 1907.

And now it’s back to school for me, classes begin again in the morning. Time to try and earn my own loving cup.

Forced to pay attention “on this day”

January 10, 2012

Ten days into 2012 and it dawns on me what’s missing from my routine: I’ve not replaced my desktop calendar, the one I always use for jotting random notes and “to do”s and for jogging thoughts and notions when the tabula feels too rasa.

They should all be bargain-discounted by now, I’ll see what I can find. Meanwhile there are online resources to fill the gap. The Times’ On this Day” site, for instance, has apparently been embedded in its “Learning Network” blog and is chock-full of amusing and useful daily tidbits “for students 13 and older.” I notice, when I click on “January 10,” that most of the historical squib s deemed worthy of mention occurred in my lifetime. When I was seven, for instance, the Beatles’ first U.S. album was released on this date. “Masterpiece Theater” premiered on January 10 when I was fourteen.  More recent items seem even less momentous. And maybe I don’t really need to know that it’s Donald Fagen’s birthday.

On the other hand, this site’s interactive features are compelling and, with another semester’s Opening  Day about to arrive, timely. A student named Elizabeth, responding to the question Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?, offers this:

“ I actually took a class where the professor didn’t use PowerPoint or any supplements to lecture except for occasional use of a traditional whiteboard, and that was one of the most effective lectures I have attended. Instead of coasting by merely reading the slides, I was forced to actually pay attention to the lecture, and I gained so much from that–more, I think, than could be possible from any technology, no matter how advanced.”

Well, good! How reassuring to hear a student say the old-fashioned technology of voice-to-ear and face-to-face communication can still be effective in the classroom. Now I’m ready, if only someone will force me to pay attention. Oh yeah: that’s what students are for. They, and not a desktop pad, are what I’ve really been missing in these early days of the new year.


walking in Nashville in January

January 7, 2012

The Tigers lost by two points in a hard-played heartbreaker, but this time the coach provided postgame cupcakes instead of castigation. Sweet redemption.

And what a sweet January afternoon in middle Tennessee, nearly 70 degrees just after my quarterly haircut and just before tipoff. I was inspired, of course, to fill the interim by walking while I waited. Spotted two sunbathers on the Peabody lawn, scaled Love Circle and then the tallest parking garage on  Vandy campus while listening to David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity, and reflected again that somebody really ought to write a philosophical treatise on walking. (Or at least a song to rival “Walking in Memphis.”) Not a turgid “academic” treatise, I share young Calvin’s disdain for that kind of writing. I want to write something with legs and some motion to it.  If it advances my career in the bargain, that’d be a bonus.

Something like it’s been done before, classically by Rousseau and more recently by Rebecca Solnit and Geoff Nicholson. Annie Dillard‘s recorded some prescient thoughts on the subject. But it’s not yet been done by me. Nobody else can write that book.

And so another happy task joins the list.