Archive for February, 2012

“Humans for the most part don’t have a clue”

February 29, 2012

David in A&P offers this coda for his series of blog posts on knowledge and belief. It happens to coincide perfectly with the presentation Dave gave in CoPhi yesterday, when he reminded us  just how much “knowledge” we’ve all been taught to accept on authority and faith. Easter bunnies, tooth fairies, Santa Claus, omnipotent beings… where does it end?

As Mr. Twain said, the trouble with people is what they know that just ain’t so.

And that seems like a pretty good note to end the first half of the semester on. I’m ready to take a breath, take a hike, & try to get a clue. Just gotta inflict a few midterm exams first.

Imagine what you’ll “know” tomorrow.

Shermer, Randi, Tom, Kitcher, Edis

February 28, 2012

More presentations on tap today in A&P, on Religion & Neuroscience and “Parenting Beyond Belief”  among others. More Blackford essays too:

Skeptic Michael Shermer’s Believing Brain lays out his own conversion and de-conversion stories at length. The short version is “Why I Am an Atheist,” and more nuance is introduced in “How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science.” He doesn’t much care for labels, but as a skeptic he “simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented.” So he’s ok with one label: Militant Agnostic (“I don’t know and you don’t either.)

He also does a fun spot with Mr. Deity…

and a snappy TED Talk.

Are science and religion compatible?’ It’s like asking: ‘Are science and plumbing compatible?’ They’re just two different things.

Shermer has interesting thoughts on the religious implications of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He’s skeptical. But I, like Sagan and Tyson and Jill Tarter, think ET’s worth looking for.

We, all of us, are what happens when a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from. –Jill Tarter

James Randi is “appalled” that so many of his contemporaries continue to credit religious mythology and to discredit evolution and withhold instruction in basic reproductive biology. Magician that he is, he still can’t make their superstitions disappear.

Emma Tom takes down the “devout bitch” who terrorized her in kindergarten with warnings of leprosy and hell. But she’s ready for her day of reckoning,  when she imagines “the rapturous sky will actually be full of big-hearted gays, compassionate abortionists, and inner city Wiccans.”

Philip Kitcher defends the pragmatic line on religion, from William James and John Dewey. Religious claims may be false, even “absurd,” while religion on the whole may yet be defensible for some on other grounds. He and they hold out for “a secular humanism that emphasizes the humanity as well as the secularism.”

Kitcher’s new book The Ethical Project is up our alley:

Instead of conceiving ethical commands as divine revelations or as the discoveries of brilliant thinkers, we should see our ethical practices as evolving over tens of thousands of years, as members of our species have worked out how to live together and prosper…

…an evolving ethics built around a few core principles—including justice and cooperation—but leaving room for a diversity of communities and modes of self-expression. Ethics emerges as a beautifully human phenomenon—permanently unfinished, collectively refined and distorted generation by generation. Our human values can be understood not as a final system but as a project—the ethical project—in which our species has engaged for most of its history, and which has been central to who we are.

Taner Edis (Science and Nonbelief) similarly denies “that the question of belief has a single answer true for everyone” and opts for pluralism. What is true and what we should believe, he thinks, may not always converge. I could be wrong, but I’ll bet that’s not going to fly in A&P. I think I prefer James’s own formulation on this point, perhaps (I confess) because it’s a little slipperier:

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe’: and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart? Pragmatism

Christians 2, Philosophers 0 (Augustine, Boethius, Hypatia)

February 27, 2012

Before picking up in CoPhi today with Augustine, Boethius, and Hypatia (and “Aher” and a smidgin of Zen)

M 27/T 28 – JMH 193-216. Augustine, Boethius, Ben Abuyah, Hypatia, Zen

we’ll ponder George Santayana’s statement about preserving the “chastity of the intellect” by not surrendering it to unearned (i.e., insufficiently evidenced) beliefs. His predecessor C.S. Peirce had a related thought about the unpragmatic separation of belief from action.

Beliefs, on Peirce’s proposal, are ideas we’re prepared to act on, and

what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief… To avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous.

So let’s continue looking.

As Christopher Hitchens always liked to ask: What was God doing, for all eternity, before these storied events in the desert two millennia ago? Preparing hell?Really?*

That was Augustine‘s little joke, and he knew it’s not the best, most comforting or “Christian” answer  A lapsed Manichaean [PhDy], influenced by Plotinus, fearful of death or a punitive afterlife (and thus unable to become an Epicure and embrace happiness on earth), and famously reluctant to embrace the chastity of his Christian re-birth, Augustine confessed his initial problem with belief in the Christian God. He “had a lot of trouble with lust before and after” his conversion.

He was not the first church Father with that problem, or the last. But he he eventually overcame his unbelief by drawing rigid lines around his own protean appetites, and especially around his intellectual curiosity.  He “praised doubt as long as it does not question God,” and thus anticipated Descartes by centuries. Talk about putting Descartes before the horse, which in this context means putting God before the doubt.

That was a bad pun, but it’s a worse philosophy. There’s a lot of question-begging circularity going on here, reminiscent of the notorious Cartesian Circle around clear and distinct ideas of the divine: If resurrection is impossible it didn’t happen, but it DID happen… The outer evidence? Second-hand scripture. That’s an appeal to shaky authority at best. The inner evidence? That’s a shaky concept to begin with, but it’s probably what Augustine’s faith ultimately rests on. Seems to have been good enough to get him Sainted, but it wouldn’t have got him through his Grad School prelims in philosophy.

JMH says Augustine does not flatly reject philosophy, he just insists that it “should be used when it is useful” in complementing, not in questioning, faith. For some of us, that sounds a lot like rejection.

Like Brian, he was a bit of a Mama’s Boy. “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.” Right. He did let Paul’s more tender and attentive God woo him from the clutches of “the [neo-] Platonist books,” and set high personal standards of piety and asceticism. JMH notes,

He did not feel he was a Christian until he could give up all sex, all food beyond his barest needs, and all worldly enterprise, including his job as a teacher.

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

Another joke. Very funny. But this is a serious moment in the history of Belief and Doubt. It’s not about the philosophic enterprise of “getting to the bottom of what’s real” but instead “trying to commit oneself to belief.” It’s the Believing is Seeing inversion again.

Augustine gave Christians the stock “free will” solution to the problem of evil they’ve rested in ever since, and their dependence on undeserved divine grace that made the world safe for Calvinist predestination: more “difficult” doctrines to complement Paul’s on the redemptive resurrection.

Augustine once thought himself happy in his Godless, hedonistic youth; and then he famously begged for more time to sow his oats and adjust to the idea of a more sedate life of “contemplative felicity.”

*Augustine doesn’t answer the riddle about God’s activities just prior to the advent of Christianity, but he does offer an interesting perspective on time and how (and when) a God would spend it: “Before the universe existed there was no time.” No God either, presumably. What would Spinoza say? And Einstein?

Augustine’s contemporary Hypatia would have found it difficult, indeed, to accept the Augustinian denial of evil as something tangibly, substantively, pernicious. Being flayed alive is surely to experience much more than mere “privation” of flesh and spirit. But it certainly underscored, and punctuated with bitter irony, her most famous statements:

To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.

Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

EB: Hypatia’s reputation as a learned and beautiful female philosopher, combined with the dramatic details of her grisly death, have inspired the imaginations of numerous writers, resulting in works such as Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia: New Foes with an Old Face (1852).

The late Carl Sagan brought her story to life in Cosmos. And now there’s a motion picture. Maybe she’ll finally get the attention she deserves.

JMH: After Hypatia’s murder “no non-Christian in the Roman Empire actively attempted to propagate secular philosophy. By 529 CE,

the Christian emperor Justinian outlawed paganism and closed the Epicurean Garden, the Skeptic Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoic Porch.

Christians 2, Philosophers 0. (Lions long gone.) But at least Boethius had a nice visit with Lady Philosophy before he had to go.

More on Hypatia, Boethius, Ben Abuyah here

Good enough for greatness

February 24, 2012

My old teacher John Lachs delivered this year’s inaugural Berry Lecture at Vanderbilt last night. “Why is Good Enough not Good Enough for Us?” It was just as I’ve come to expect of his talks through the years, thoughtful and elegant and crisply performed. It spurned Platonism, the impossible and stultifying “pursuit of perfection” which he said

 is not the search for something definite and well-known. The limits of human capacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfection impossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent and therefore good enough.

This isn’t the “good enough” of Lake Wobegon, where things could always be worse, but the genuine good of areth [aretê] that ought to be enough to fill our hearts and entice our eagerness for the morrow. But most of us fall prey to perfectionism at one time or another, and cheat ourselves of the life satisfactions we’ve earned.

After the talk I asked Lachs if he’d seen Moneyball. He hasn’t. But consider the case of poor Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics General Manager. Incapable of relishing his small-market team’s record-setting win streak or his own unorthodox contributions to that achievement, he’s a “perfect” illustration of  Lachs’s thesis. The A’s didn’t win the Big One at season’s end, so the perfectionist GM considered himself and his team a failure. He couldn’t give himself a moment’s pause to mark and remember their remarkable success.

In A&P yesterday afternoon we heard from Daniel about another sort of perfectionist, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Uber-prophet who came too soon. Forever too soon, for the humans he thought “all too human.” Fritz was not much of a team player, but  there are legions of Nietzscheans among us still. I considered myself one, back in my early days of grad school before discovering Willy James’s less antipathetic humanism.

I do like Nietzsche’s impulse, manifest in his “gift” of eternal recurrence, to find our permanent life in nature good enough and affirm its perpetual return. But the discipline of sublimated  self-overcoming he preached and roughly practiced is too stern and self-denying for my taste. The so called will to power, the “striving to transcend and perfect oneself,” is an example of what Lachs called

our Faustian tendency to want to have and do everything… our compulsion to pursue unreachable ideals [in] the eternal dissatisfaction that permeates Western industrial society.

Reach for the stars, by all means, but as Casey Kasem used to say as he counted down to #1, keep your feet on the ground.The “good enough” perspective “substitutes joy in the immediacies of life for all-encompassing guilt.” Of course we should all be doing what we can to ameliorate the suffering and sadness that afflict so many, and not only those in our own back yard.  The Peter Singers of the world may ask too much of us, but those to whom much is given have much to give back. We need to have an answer. And yet…

This world as we know it really is more than good enough. It might even be great, like those post-lecture beers at Blackstone’s. Just wish I’d remembered to phone home. But nobody’s perfect.

Nature: Is that all there is?

February 23, 2012

That’s a rhetorical question, for me and many of my cohorts in A&P. The answer is a resounding and undisappointed Yes! Thomas Clark, on our reading list today, says “for the naturalist, nature is all there is, and therefore it’s enough.” More than enough, considering how much of nature’s code we still haven’t begun to crack.

We’re also getting a report presentation today from Daniel on Nietzsche, whose “eternal recurrence” thought experiment was designed in part to reinforce our sense of nature’s sufficiency. It’s a gift, he told his shrink.

We’re also discussing four other short essays today.

For John Harris it’s personal: “My father died when I was 12 years old, and I became an atheist overnight. It was immediately obvious to me that God was either wicked or dead…” Or both? Let’s be clear: if God is dead it’s because He never lived in the first place. What’s the point of pinning wickedness on a fiction? Atheists’ animus is misdirected, if aimed directly at God. But there’s no shortage of suitable human targets.

Harris rejects agnosticism about gods for the same reason he rejects it for fairies and the Great Green Arkleseizure (he’s an Adams fan) or Russell’s teapot (YouTimages). They’re possible, sure. Most fictional entities are. So? So, he’s a “one god further” atheist. Like most of us he spurns Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But like Dawkins he doesn’t stop there.

Harris invokes the distinction, so crucial for maintaining amity amidst diversity, that we’ve already endorsed: “respect for persons does not entail respect for their beliefs.” Mitt Romney’s ok (though I’ll not be voting for him), Mitt Romney’s religion is inane. OK?

In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one- year-old man of being “a disorderly person and an impostor.” That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or “necromantic” powers.” –Christopher Hitchens

But four years later Smith “found” the Book of Mormon, and now we’re all supposed to respect the Latter Day Saints. Time lifts boats that otherwise just won’t float.

I have found a “skeptic Mormon” online, and plenty of generally-sensible ones, like joanna brooks @askmormongirl. It seems to be an unshakable cultural identity for many, who must think Joe Smith’s story is somehow peripheral to the faith. But how can that be?

Adele Mercier opens with Protagoras, an agnostic “because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.” Some of us think life’s too short to waste on obscure fantasies of eternal ever-after in Neverland.  After all, “most first-order religious beliefs are daft.” But most believers in virgin birth (etc.) have never been encouraged to notice and are liable to think they’ve posed a stumper when they call the skeptic’s attention to the miracle in question. It simply hasn’t occurred to them that biblical and traditional authority is inconclusive at best. “How do you explain that?!” Same way I explain fairies and arkleseizures: humans have active, credulous imaginations.

In fact, we’re “evolutionarily programmed” to believe what our parents tell us. That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Another fact, presaged by the foregoing discussion of LDS: religion is much more about “social identity” than about the real nature of the cosmos. “People spend a lot more time defending and justifying their right to religion than defining and justifying their purported religious beliefs.” They believe in believing, as Dennett says. I do too. I just prefer to believe in believable things. Is that so unreasonable?

J.J.C. Smart, distinguished and emeritus, has the shortest essay in the book. But he rings a lot of my bells: unitarianism, pantheism, Russell, Clifford, Hume, anthropocentrism and life in the universe.

Graham Oppy says “mind and purpose are not ground-level ingredients of the universe” and quantum mechanics is not “a true theory that postulates a key role for consciousness.” He’s no fan of flapdoodle.

The aforementioned Thomas Clark sensibly says we should insulate factual claims from bias and wishful thinking. “We’re at risk of projecting our human hopes and categories onto the world instead of grasping its true nature.” Pure objectivity may elude us but intersubjectivity is the next best thing. But is “the view from nowhere” a constructive ideal? Human hopes have a place, and it’s not “nowhere.”

“The absence of God and the supernatural simply highlights the presence of nature.” A ubiquitous presence. So let’s occupy the universe.

Doubting Thomas redux

February 22, 2012

So it’s back to Year 1 in CoPhi, with JMH‘s take on Jesus, Paul, EpictetusPlotinus [IEP], and the Gnostics (among others). Belief in the Judeo-Christian God’s heaven, as the necessary and sufficient price of admission thereto, is about to become “the central religious duty.”Doubt will be its correlative complement.

“Belief is difficult.” Really? You’ll have a hard time persuading freethinkers in Tennessee of that proposition. Most of our peers here seem to regard unquestioning belief as a given, along with patriotism and unwavering support of UT’s “amateur” athletic program.

But the claim here is that, in the Common Era, God demands uncircumspect, unreflective, unwavering professions of allegiance from all his creatures who want any chance of returning to the post-mortem fold. Not good works, not tribal devotion (“the afterlife was seen as a given for the whole group”),  not rational Hellenic skepticism, notanything but pure unblinking faith in the face of evidential nullity. “The individual’s sole responsibility was to not step out of the group.”

It would be awkward, then, if Jesus himself (Son and Father) was a doubter. JMH says he was, in two respects. He doubted his own ability to sacrifice himself in the atonement of human sins, and he doubted God’s loyalty. “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Paul never met Jesus, but was convinced he was the son of God and could redeem the rest of us by dying in a horrible crucifixion. As Solomon and Higgins said, it’s an “extremely difficult notion” of justice and redemption.

Paul, who “reimagined the religion in terms of the magic of resurrection and life everlasting,” was not the only 2d-hand scribe involved in telling the Greatest Story Ever Told. “When people finally got down to writing about Jesus, they no longer knew much detail.” So it may just be true that, with his “doubting of establishment values,” he was really a Jewish Diogenes. (Speaking of dead philosophers…)

But in fact there were other influences in the mix, including Plato’s ultimate Truth, the Stoics’s “distant, universal, logical God,” and the desperate dream of an afterlife. Believing is seeing, allegedly.

With such high stakes, wouldn’t it be hard for most of us not to want to believe? “Everything is possible for him who believes… help me overcome my unbelief!” That attitude won’t get you far in Philosophy but it’ll sure build your church. I’ll bet I pass half a dozen message boards proclaiming precisely that message every day on my way to school.

Philosophers are more likely to echo Thomas, the empiricist disciple who would have been at home in Missouri, demanding to be shown the proof of the nail marks. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We really do live in a blessed region, here in the mid-state.

It must have been harder to believe, back then.

The philosophers and the Jews had both rejected the idea of any God with a biography: a face, and a mother… And then here was God, a man. It is a stunning shift.

It really defies credulity, and must have seemed literally incredible to many of Jesus’ peers. But does it become easier, as time goes by and generations pass, to believe? Was it a buyer’s market for Messiahs, when he and Brian Cohen and other stump speakers, were vying for attention?

JMH wonders how Paul’s insistence that divine justice (among other inescapable philosophical problems) is “not ours to ponder” went over in Athens, and among Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics? Like a lead balloon, I’d guess.

Plotinus thought Christianity was “an offensive, mythic little cult” and tried to improve it with his neo-Platonic emanations. His God was a lot like Aristotle’s:

“he had no personality, did not know of us, had not created the world, took no interest in it, and would never judge it or anyone… It was Plotinus who made Plato and Aristotle seem religious.” (JMH)

It was also Plotinus who downgraded the status of matter, nature, and the human body as inferior by comparison with the higher stages of emanation. After him, Christianity cracked down on dissent. Free-thinking was not tolerated, and the Dark Ages commenced with the horrific murder, probably ordered by Cyril (later rewarded with Sainthood), of the great female Alexandrian philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Hypatia (more on her next time.)

How about those heretical Gnostics? They said we’re

trapped on the surface of the planet, destined to die and rot in the ground or go up in smoke.

They wanted to be beamed home, and this (they said) isn’t it. But the creator God is not putting out a welcome mat either.

Why marvel that God made beaches, wheat, and honeycombs if, on the important questions, any fairly decent human being would have done a better job; would, for instance, neither invent torture nor allow it to be invented… Our sense of ethics, pity, and care makes us far superior to the universe in which we are trapped.

JMH says they celebrated humanness, but speaking as a humanist I prefer the version she indicated early in her book – the one where humans decide they’re not lost in the woods after all, and instead decide to hang out a “Home Sweet Home” sign and settle in for the duration to make the best of things in an imperfect world. “The self and the divine are identical” seems a bit of a stretch.

I too am an Epicurean“: Jefferson on Epicurus, Epictetus… Jefferson the epicure…  Back in the saddle (Paul etc.)… Ehrman at MTSU…

Lighting a candle for reason

February 21, 2012

We begin Russell Blackford’s anthology 50 Voices of Disbelief today in A&P.

It’s “harder to keep the candle of reason alight” than ever, says Blackford, but the stakes have never been higher. He’s borrowing a light and a metaphor from Carl Sagan’s prescient warning in Demon-haunted World.

“Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir. “

So another 50 voices of reason need to be heard. It’s not a time for the “blase atheism” young Blackford once predicted. “This is a good time for atheists, skeptics, and rationalists, for humanists, doubters, philosophical naturalists to stand up…”

My favorite line in Margaret Downey’s “Bye Bull” Story: “Do you want life after death? Create a legacy worthy remembering.” And take heart, we’re not alone. The #AtheistRollCall includes Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Bell, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton,  Sagan, Einstein, Curie, Vonnegut, Chaplin, Hepburn, and many more… As Mr. Clemens said, “Go to hell for the climate, hell for the company.”

Nicholas Everitt believes “the non-existence of God can be proved beyond all reasonable doubt,” and is unimpressed by the “greater good” defense.  “If a thug shoots me in the leg, it’s good if here’s a compassionate person to care for me”… but better “with neither the shooting nor the compassion.” And then there’s all that “colossal animal suffering,” inevitable and deplorable in our world. (But note, that’s not an inevitability that could get an omnipotent creator off the hook.) He ends on a disquieting note, wondering if his instinctive atheism ultimately stands free of all reasons (no matter how good).  If so, doesn’t parity of reasoning-&-feeling require some sympathy for the instinctive theist?

Ophelia Benson’s been carrying the candle for reason and battling fashionable nonsense for many years. Here she punctures the perversity of a faith so familiar that it’s commonplace. Curse “our gormless credulity and docility and willingness to be conned,” and the hypothetical god of guile and misdirection who would gratuitously test us.   Why would an omniscient being need tests? If I already knew who’d get A’s and who’d fail I’d definitely not bother to give you a midterm. Well, actually maybe would. Tests are about process and pedagogy, not outcomes. But I never claimed to know it all, or to be the wise dispenser of pain and freedom and the gatekeeper of eternity. My tests are mostly painless and without ultimate consequence. (But you should still study.)

J.L. Schellenberg cleverly wonders if nonbelief itself isn’t its own evidence, and proposes evolutionary skepticism as the deepest objection to religion. “It’s easy for us to forget how ill-prepared our species may be for ultimate insight… if there is  a form of religion appropriate to our time, it will be a skeptical form of religion: religion without belief.” Cue Alain de Botton? Or Dan Barker? [Friendly Neighborhood AtheistIt’s Only Natural]

Five minutes in, Barker applauds the atheist bookshelf at his old Borders store. I was in my own local former Borders (R.I.P.) the other day, now a Barnes & Noble. Guess what I found there?

“Passion” spent, “Doubt” in the wings (redux)

February 20, 2012

We finish our rapid Passion for Wisdom flyover of the history of philosophy today & tomorrow in CoPhi. (I’m feeling a little nostalgic about that this morning, having nearly decided to shelve this book next semester in favor of Warburton’s Little History or Law’s glossy Philosophy(What do you think, Shawn?)

Russell & WittgensteinFreud & BergsonPhenomenology & Existentialism

(HusserlHeideggerSartreCamus), Feminist philosophy, Postmodernism

New Age philosophy

It’s been a too rapid flyover, really. Time keeps on slipping slipping slipping… But we’ll pick the story up again with JMH back at Year One (C.E.), at a doubter’s pace, next week. Indulge me in one last wave to the late Prof. Solomon, whose wisdom has been an inspiration.

So many names, ideas, links… Where to begin?

The Russell-Wittgenstein story is pretty compelling, especially as rendered graphically in Logicomix [WittRusslyingwhich reminds me of turtles.

Both Russell and Wittgenstein were questers for certainty early in their thinking careers, and both came to renounce (or at least doubt)  that goal as unattainable and unnecessary. Russell would become a prominent public intellectual, speaking and writing for popular audiences about happiness, marriage, pacifism, and other topics far more engaging for most of us than mathematical logic and the atomic structure of sentences. His Conquest of Happiness was a highlight of our “Secret of Life” course last Fall.

The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of Existentialism is worth a moment of our time, too.

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is.

Well, we simply are in any case. Who says human nature requires a creator? Sartre seems to me to lack imagination on this point. If he thinks he’s “nothing” he can speak for himself. Or he could have, back when he was still something.

I confess I’m not Sartre’s biggest fan. But then, I first encountered him this way:

Sartre‘s point about freedom seems to be that if we’re ever free to choose, then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. This is about commitment, not about results.

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I choose to act as a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom: essence-creation in progress.

But I’ll also fret a bit about objectifying myself as the sort of thing that acts as a goal-oriented striver, a thing without other possibilities as well, and may in consequence undermine my own efforts.

And if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But I should cut him and his confreres some slack, their country was being overrun by Nazis when they came up with this philosophy of extremes. No wonder they were full ofangst. But if I were to spend a smoky cafe session with them I’d still ask: So, freedom to choose is also freedom to fret. Is thatreally  so “dreadful”?

Freud’s pro/anti Enlightenment duality is intriguing, if not entirely convincing. Same for Henri Bergson’s elan vital“an original common impulse which explains the creation of all living species” now thought by most philosophers to lack scientific respectability as an evolutionary alternative to Darwinian natural selection. Nonetheless, William James was much impressed by his French contemporary’s critique of intellectualism and other ideas about time and the immediacy of perception.

“It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. And to me it tells of reality itself and not merely of what previous dusty-minded professors have thought about reality.”

Heidegger is more (ironically) tainted by “inauthenticity” now than when I first encountered Sein und Zeit, but he was right– in spite of himself– to insist that das Man is too prone to dissembling the unshakably-personal implications of mortality.

Albert Camus cut to the heart of it all: Is life worth living? If not, why live? His own answer, like Sisyphus’, was a defiant Oui! And then he died, in a tragic automobile accident, at age 46. Absurd.*

Just like those aspects of postmodernism and the New Age that would divorce all our talk from the search for truth.

Feminists have usefully challenged the old boy domain of professional philosophy with “Where are the women?” Increasingly they are here, in our departments of philosophy. But JMH will show us that they’ve been here all along, in lesser numbers of course, but we haven’t been paying sufficient attention. (If we had been, we’d all know the names of Hypatia, Anne Royal, Ernestine Rose, Margaret Fuller…)

Where to conclude? It’s too soon to think about that.

Leonard Pitts on “truthiness”

February 18, 2012

Almost sent one of my CoPhi classes to hear nationally-syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts the other day, at the first Seigenthaler lecture of the season on our campus. He talked about “Owning What You Know.”

But I didn’t, and we had a good class discussion on Nietzsche, Darwin, & Mill (et al). But I wish we coulda done both. Pitts delivered a timely reminder that “truthiness” (Stephen Colbert’s term for the dishonesty and disinterest in truth– what Harry Frankfurt calls “Bullshit“– that has taken over so much of our public discourse and philosophy) is simply unacceptable. Ahd yet it is one of the most “salient” features of our culture and our time. Pitts:

The issue is not simply that we do not have the facts, it is that we do not want the facts. It is that we refuse to engage them. It is that we actively reject anything that does not comport with what we have already chosen to believe… trying to turn lies into truth by sheer repetition, of hammering lies like nails… echoed and magnified by a network of bloggers, and radio talk show hosts and TV pundits… brazen falsehoods that fly in the face of science, and history, and facts, and decency.

It threatens grave and profound damage to the intellectual life of the nation, to our ability to simply be thinking and responsible members of the American electorate.

Where to, humanity?” Wherever we’re going as a species, it’ll be a bad trip if we’re not even trying to tell the truth about it.

Subway hero

February 17, 2012

In CoPhi yesterday we were talking about courage, and how we don’t really know what we’re capable of doing until we find ourselves in a crisis situation. I recalled the real-life (not the 30 Rock) “subway hero,” Wesley Autrey. On January 2, 2007,

Mr. Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.

Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time.

Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease. Mr. Autrey heard onlookers’ screams. “We’re O.K. down here,” he yelled, “but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.” He heard cries of wonder, and applause…

“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

Incredible but true. The point I wanted to make: neither a Utilitarian nor a Deontologist would have had time to ponder a decision like that. Was it even a decision? No, it was an instantaneous, impulsive, selfless reaction based on a long-prepared disposition to do what feels right. You don’t get that from sitting around in a bar talking about what you’d do if this or that scenario were to arise. Woody Allen in Manhattan says he’d never have to face the situation of whether to risk his own life to save a drowning person since he, Woody, doesn’t swim. Heroism is not hypothetical.

You don’t develop such a disposition merely by sitting in Philosophy class either, reading Bentham and Mill and Kant, meditating on First Principles, or tabulating the hedonic calculus. Doing those things might help some of us think about how to build the character and will to do the right thing, but this really goes back to David Hume: it’s not reason, in the end, but fellow-feeling and a sense of connectedness that clinches our altruism. We become the sort of person who performs heroically in a crisis by performing countless repeated small acts of kindness.  Generosity of spirit is made, not born.

And reason, if it’s smart, notices.