Archive for April, 2012

Where did our hope go?

April 30, 2012

The death of the author of Ecotopia was reported yesterday. Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel looked forward to 1999 and a secessionist state in the Pacific Northwest devoted to environmental integrity and lighter living, a new nation that

poses a nagging challenge to the underlying national philosophy of America: ever-continuing progress, the fruits of industrialization for all, a rising Gross National Product. [Ecotopia is] a society in which recycling is a way of life, gas-powered cars are replaced by electric cars (although most people walk or commute on high-speed magnetic-levitation trains) and bicycles are placed in public spaces to be borrowed at will. In Ecotopia, solar energy is commonplace, organic food is locally grown and, instead of petrochemical fertilizers, processed sewage is used to cultivate crops.

It’ll be the obvious next stop on our journey forward from Earth Day and The Greening of America towards the real 1999 and beyond, in Environmental Ethics in the Fall. We’ll be asking ourselves the “Big Chill” question: where did our hope go? More importantly: how do we get it back?

Like Paul Hawken [SALT] and Van Jones, Callenbach really was addressing the next generation.

On a visit to La Jolla High School in San Diego in 1989, students told him that they wanted to live in a society like the one he had imagined. They could, he replied, if they and others of their generation were committed to it. “If you don’t save us, nobody will,” he said.

I wonder if grading still exists in Ecotopia. There’s no sign of help coming on that front here, either.

Re-greening America

April 28, 2012

An errand pulled me away from grading and into the vicinity of the huge new McKay’s used book & music emporium yesterday. Of course I had to go in. “Free will”? Ha!

And look what I found for a nickel.

 This will be the place to begin Environmental Ethics in the Fall, with our focus on what ever happened to the activist passion of the first Earth Day. Yale law prof Reich’s bestseller was the hippy-trippy manifesto that launched a thousand protest demonstrations on behalf of Mother Earth over forty years ago, and raised the consciousness of a fraction of a generation for at least a short while. Reich, looking back recently, explained its improbable impact this way:

It gave people a great leap of hope, made people feel good. This was a world that could get better, a whole lot better. I might say to those who stuck with it in some way or other they will still swear by the values of the ’60s.

And what’s changed?

What is lacking today is that people are not in any way experimenting with a different way to live, a different way to feel, a different way to be.

I think he’s right. We need to experiment with alternative energy, alternative transportation, alternative jobs, and especially an alternative sensibility about how it might be possible to live sustainably for a long time on a crowded but healthily bio-diverse planet.

Will we ever get back to the giddy greenery of the ’60s? Not sure we want to. But books like Blessed Unrest and Rebuild the Dream point an experimental way forward, possibly even a “movement.” We’ll be reading and discussing (and acting on?) them both in our course. And other things too. Stay tuned.

“Social Conquest of Earth”

April 27, 2012

Listened yesterday to the podcast of E.O. Wilson’s recent SALT (“Long term thinking”) talk about his new book, which I’ve started reading.

First the social insects ruled, from 60 million years ago. Then a species of social mammals took over, from 10 thousand years ago. Both sets of “eusocial” animals mastered the supremely delicate art of encouraging altruism, so that individuals in the groups would act as if they value the goal of the group over their own goals. They would specialize for the group and die for the group. In recent decades the idea of “kin selection” seemed to explain how such an astonishing phenomenon could evolve. Wilson replaces kin selection with “multi-level selection,” which incorporates both individual selection (long well understood) and group selection (long considered taboo). Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs. SB

He may or may not be right about “multi-level selection” and our intrinsically conflicted human nature, torn between self, kin, and larger group identities; but the man himself is a marvel, still producing important and controversial scholarship at age 82. His advice for how the most reckless and self-centered group on earth should manage its ecosystem: “leave it alone.” His advice to individuals: don’t retire.

I intend to follow his advice, the man clearly knows something about managing over the long haul. If he’s right, there’s still hope that our species is becoming and will continue to become gradually more cooperative and less selfish over time. And isn’t this just the sort of prophecy that can be self-fulfilling? I’m rooting for him to be right, and for “What I need” eventually to converge with “what we need.” And then we’ll all live happily ever after. Right?

Pocket poems

April 26, 2012

It’s Study Day, aka Dead Day, after classes end and before finals begin. It’s also national Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The idea is simple: select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends. You can also share your poem selection on Twitter by using the hashtag #pocketpoem.

Okay, I have several pockets. I really like the Matthew Arnold poem I used as my semester benediction:

Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the Spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

Casey at the Bat can take another pocket.

And Billy Collins’ “Morning,” of course:

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

But I guess my primary pocket poem is going to be that Emily Dickinson hymn to the powers of the mind (brain) I’m always citing in class, the one carved into the edifice of Buttrick Hall on the Vandy campus:

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—

It’ll be too warm for more pockets today. Wait ’til next year.

Running, freedom, pluralism

April 25, 2012

Really enjoyed Nick’s CoPhi report the other day on running, experience, and subjectivity. He told us about all he could about how his own experience as a runner feels to him like freedom and spontaneity, striking out without a set route or destination and just running. He then admitted that the experience generates an emotional penumbra he lacks words for. Precisely so, for every heartfelt joy. This is what William James called the “springs of delight” in life, so personal and inexpressible… but so real.

Philosophy lives in words,but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation.There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy….In the religious sphere, in particular, belief that formulas are true can never take the place of personal experience.

Jamie spoke to us in A&P of similar sentiments, and of the ways in which our identities are wrapped up in our attachments. He declared himself a pluralist, which in my book trumps all other ‘isms (theisms included). We’re constitutionally and habitually blind to others’ delights, enthusiasms, identities. But such blindness is

not simply deplorable but also emblematic of the deepest spring of our shared humanity, our subjectivity. And for James subjectivity is to be celebrated, as the ground of purpose in our lives; and reflection on the moral implications of subjectivity leads to a principle of caution whereby we refrain from denigrating and dismissing any process of life whose subjective sources we cannot comprehend. Springs

That’s also what makes me a pluralist, and a “friendly atheist.”

But let me just add: this semester in A&P we had a surplus of “strident” atheists who were as friendly as could be, and undogmatic theists (and Wiccans and quasi-New Agers and others beyond familiar categorization). And in CoPhi we had a bunch of friendly, open theists. They all made pluralism easy, too.

I’m missing those classes already.

Wait, I buried the lead: it’s the last class date for CoPhi this semester, before finals. Still haven’t found better parting words than Uncle Albert’s: “the important thing is not to stop asking questions.”

Nor have I found a better farewell song than Carol Burnett‘s.

But this semester I have found a new parting poem:

Empedocles on Etna

Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoyed the sun,
To have lived light in the Spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

-Matthew Arnold

In other words: have a nice summer. Don’t stop asking questions.

Have we got a prayer?

April 24, 2012

It’s our last regular class in A&P, some sort of benediction would seem to be in order. Would this be a suitable occasion to call on Alain de Botton’s atheist clerics?

No, I share Walt Whitman’s view:

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. . . . Every man shall be his own priest.

We can bless ourselves. In fact, we’re already blessed. It’s been a terrific semester, we’ve come at our topic from many angles, we’ve agreed to disagree, we’ve disagreed agreeably. We were good, with and without god. And now it’s just about time to go, so let’s conclude this year’s service with a song and a prayer. Yo?

A&P will be back, year after next. ‘Til then…

“It was a good play; I will have it performed again.” Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship

Earth Day

April 23, 2012

Sunday was the 43d Earth Day, launched originally as an event to mobilize the spirit of public-minded activism but lately observed more as a benign and even quaint occasion for platitudinous inactivity. On the public education front, here’s a series that might do some good.

My environmental ethics course in the Fall will wonder what’s happened to the passion that fired the organizers of the first Earth Day, and whether it can be rekindled. Or could we care less? Will it take a grand improbable goal as big as a moonshot to get us all focused again on the vulnerable state of our lovely homeworld? Neil Tyson:

April 22, 2012 #EarthDay. Founded 1970. The year after we walked on Moon, looked back home, & discovered Earth for first time

Richard Alley’s “Operator’s Manual” is online here, and there’s a companion book as well.

“interanimating ensembles of potentialities”

April 21, 2012

John Lysaker, our guest Lyceum lecturer yesteray, was terrific, energetic, funny, self-effacing, and fundamentally right, though rhetorically just a bit too Heideggerian for my taste :

We are interanimating ensembles of potentialities for being that neither reduce to causal relations among material states nor revolve around egological centers of attention and action.

But when he spoke the language of James and Dewey it all came clear. Our “selves” are relational, and tailored to the varieties of people we encounter day-to-day. We are bundles of habits, powerful but largely inexplicit and unchosen. We each possess distinct but overlapping fields of awareness, we combine a capacity for laser-like focal attention and low-level distraction, and we’re at our best when we integrate the many facets of our lives in deference to desired futures.

For instance: I was riveted by John’s talk, but simultaneously, distractedly, naggingly aware that a gorgeous Spring afternoon was unfolding just beyond the lecture room windows. The self that loves a good philosophical conversation was in tension with the self that wants to roam. What else is new?

But I overcame the tension by anticipating our post-lecture reception, and my desire to have something meaningful and informed to say there to John about his talk.

And it was fun talking to John about  selfhood in general and our respective lives in particular, over beers and fried chicken. We overlapped briefly in grad school, years ago,  and thus had not only our own but many other selves to catch up on. One of them, now on staff in our college of liberal arts and in attendance yesterday, was his student and my student worker back when I was night manager of the student center at Vandy.

So, coming to terms with selfhood just means acknowledging one’s place among many others in a constellation of people, places, events, memories, perceptions, and possibilities. Acknowledging, appreciating, narrating, savoring

One of our students at the reception popped a series of disarming Big Questions at John and me, at table, including: “What do you like most about your life?” Kind of a stumper question, but I just like being in the constellation at all, when (like us all, and unlike all those merely-possible persons who might have been) I just as easily can imagine not ever having existed at all. We’re the lucky ones because, as John’s friend Heidegger would put it, we get to Be. That’s really not so hard to come to terms with, though it’s too easy to forget.

the great task of our generation

April 20, 2012

Making systems work is the great task of my generation of physicians and scientists. But I would go further and say that making systems work — whether in healthcare, education, climate change, making a pathway out of poverty — is the great task of our generation as a whole. Atul Gawande

Letting go of A&P

April 19, 2012

We’re done with required texts in A&P, unless someone wants to explore Sam Harris’s afterword “reply to critics.”

[A new Guardian review calls Moral Landscape “bull-headed” (and a reader calls the review “breathtakingly useless” and “territorial peeing”)… Appiah’s review… Piggliucci’s review… a better review from Russell Blackford… Shermer’s reviewSam’s reply to critics]

So today (before our first Final Report presentation) it’s pot-luck.

I’m bringing my DVD of Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God,” somebody else can bring the popcorn. She remains my favorite New Atheist, and is clearly the funniest, hands down. (Though Hitch had his moments.)  Her No God glasses (LGOG trailer)…

Her blogher script… her takedown of Deepak… her storytelling retirement & her TED Talk… her foreword to The Reason Driven Life… her take & mine on the Mormons… “Godless America” (This American Life)… God Said Ha!…

I just want to pat us all on the back, in this class, for participating in something still fairlly edgy, here in middle Tennessee in the shadow of Dayton and Scopes and the Tennessee General Ass (-embly).  This is the second time I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of teaching “Atheism & Philosophy” (it was catalogued as “Atheism & Spirituality” two years ago) at MTSU. Both experiences have been, from my perspective, hugely gratifying. The kinds of students drawn to this course in this place are, as you might expect, extremely bright, informed, fluent, and eager to break out of the standard-issue straightjackets of reticence and conformity in an aggressively (yet complacently) Christian environment.

How edgy are we? Well, if you go to and ask “There are college courses for religion, but are there any for atheists?,” you discover that the “Best Answer” is:

Try anthropology. It’s the study of man. Quite interesting.

Well, I think our course has been quite interesting too. And I look forward to its being increasingly so, as time goes by. Our course website will soon be open-access. “What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it?” The course returns in two years. Look for it in our catalog:

PHIL 3310 – Atheism and PhilosophyThis course examines various 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 this belief with familiar alternatives (including theism, agnosticism, and humanism), considers the spiritual significance of atheism, and explores implications for ethics and religion.

The conversation continues.