Archive for October, 2012


October 31, 2012

More good report presentations yesterday in CoPhi, including one from Michael and another from Jon that independently observed something important about how we live now: many of us are so busy crafting and  projecting Platonically-ideal social media versions of ourselves that we’re actually lost in cyberspace. Danger, Will Robinson: those “friends” are not reliable, those experiences are not real.

Michael said we’re like Plato’s cave-dwellers, mistaking our own projected “forms” for reality. Jon said real Forms are all around us. Both were really saying, I think, that reality is immediate, embodied, personal, and subjectively experienced. I concur. So would William James, who said “the only form of thing we directly encounter, the only experience we concretely have, is our own personal life.”

“Impersonal experience” is an oxymoron. Virtual experience is better, but still not as direct or immediate or concrete as a walk in the woods or a face-to-face in exterior space. Or a hurricane, lest we forget that reality is not always more pleasant. But it is always more honest. More real. As a very old philosophy primer puts it:

If we ask the plain man, What is the real external world? the first answer that seems to present itself to his mind is this: Whatever we can see, hear, touch, taste , or smell…

So, I vote for the “plain” empiricists, as opposed to the flighty and speculative rationalists… for Aristotle over Plato, Locke and Hume (but not Berkeley) over Descartes and Leibniz. (But I like Spinoza, determinism aside.) I will continue to tweet and blog, but will also continue to resist full immersion in the second-hand, mediated world of clicks and strokes. Step away from the keyboard.

And now I really must turn to an immediate and concrete encounter with that pile of student essays. I’m sure it’ll be real.


October 30, 2012

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t follow that people aren’t plotting against you. Or that they are. An old joke, and an apt observation in class yesterday.

I’m always surprised to encounter otherwise-sensible people who harbor a deep dark suspicion that others may be in cahoots against them, conspiring to steal their stuff or suppress their knowledge or otherwise manipulate their minds and behaviors and spoil their fun.

Well, let me qualify that: discounting corporations, advertizers, sales clerks, politicians…

But through the years students have shocked me with their sympathy for conspiracy-thinking about 9.11, the Holocaust, global warming, Neil Armstrong, the president’s nativity, you name it. And yesterday, in the midst of a serious and thoughtful discussion of effective leadership, one of the brightest students I know dropped hints that the Bilderbergers may be up to something. He stopped short of alleging an out-and-out plot to rule the world, but noted ominously that their gatherings are private and “by invitation.”

I first heard of the Bilderberg group back in childhood, from people who’d been infected by the vile racist paranoia of John Birch. They tended also to mention the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commision, etc. [Jon Ronson on Bilderberg]

Why do smart people believe weird things? I think Michael Shermer‘s still got the best answer to that: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” And oh, what strained beliefs they smartly defend.

I met a politician who told me that he believes the fluoridation of water is the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the public. Others have regaled me for hours with their breathless tales of who really killed JFK, RFK, MLK, Jr., Jimmy Hoffa and Princess Diana, along with the nefarious goings on of the Federal Reserve, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, Yale University’s secret society Skull and Bones, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers and the Learned Elders of Zion. It would take Madison Square Garden to hold them all for a world-domination meeting.

But “the fact that politicians sometimes lie or that corporations occasionally cheat does not mean that every event is the result of a tortuous conspiracy. Most of the time stuff just happens, and our brains connect the dots into meaningful patterns.” The Conspiracy Theory Detector is a smart corrective for the false patterns we’ve concocted. So is Carl’s caution: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Don’t get any ideas

October 29, 2012

The calendar says it’s still October, but the Series ended last night as the big storm gathers and the grading-pile calls.  It’s winter.

Time again to recall the wisdom of Thoreau (“live in each season as it passes”) and Santayana:

To be interested in the changing seasons is, in this middling zone, a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

Anyway, tensed time is supposed to be an illusion, right? We deceive ourselves in thinking that spring is far in the past or future. Be here now.

I notice, btw, that the estate of William Faulkner is suing Woody Allen for using that line about the past not even being past in “Midnight in Paris.” Come after me too, rebs, I dare ya. It’ll liven my winter.

One of my other favorite lines from that film: “He walks. He gets ideas.”

But I’m stalling. Grade, grade, grade.

Don’t worry

October 27, 2012

Happy Birthday, Older Daughter! Or, as Jay Gatsby might’ve called you, Old Sport.

I’m thinking of him this morning (as well as you) because his creator Fitzgerald wrote one of the best letters a father ever sent his daughter, to his “Scottie” (whom he also addressed as “Pie”) in 1933. She was younger than you, then, but his list of Things not to worry about is good for all ages. (He doesn’t mention Mom, crazy Zelda from Alabama.)

  • Don’t worry about popular opinion
  • Don’t worry about dolls [she was 11]
  • Don’t worry about the past
  • Don’t worry about the future
  • Don’t worry about growing up
  • Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
  • Don’t worry about triumph
  • Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
  • Don’t worry about mosquitoes, flies, or insects in general [she was at camp]
  • Don’t worry about parents [she was going to come home from camp]
  • Don’t worry about boys [she was 11]
  • Don’t worry about disappointments
  • Don’t worry about pleasures
  • Don’t worry about satisfactions

What should you worry about? He mentioned courage, cleanliness, efficiency, & horsemanship. I wouldn’t “worry” about any of them, but they’re all worthy objects of interest and attention. You’d probably prefer to substitute softball for horses, though.

He also speaks of Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at? How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to: (a) Scholarship  (b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?  (c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

I think he was too fixated on comparisons to contemporaries like Hemingway. They were a competitive bunch! But do think about being as good a scholar-athlete as you can. Mens sana in corpore sano, y’know.

The main message here: Don’t worry, be happy. Oh to be 17 again, with all the potential in the world, and a world in desperate need of your assistance. You’re going to do and experience great things in the months and years ahead. But don’t overlook the value or neglect the rewards of the little things as well. Be good, and good for something, but have a good time too.

Fitzgerald concluded his wonderful letter with a mock complaint about Scottie’s calling him “Pappy,” just as I sometimes complain about your “Old Man.”

But he still signed himself, as do I: Love anyhow, Dad.

Determined freedom

October 26, 2012

I was all set to comment on a paper at the upcoming annual Tennessee Philosophical Association meeting, but had to withdraw in favor of one more college-search roadtrip.  Maybe we’ll finally get over to Graceland too, this time.

I’m still thinking about Blake McBride’s pseudo-compatibilist conclusion, though, that we’re all both “determined” and, if you hold the mirror just right, sorta free (if you want to call it that) too. Not sure I’m buying it, but I’m choosing to consider it:

There is no real freedom in the sense that anything could be different than it is. There is also no metaphysical freedom. All action, will, thought can be entirely explained by prior causes. On the other hand, at a given moment in time we do exercise and experience freedom in the sense that our internal states sometimes determine our future states rather than being controlled by causes. In this way, we perceive freedom, and this freedom operates totally within a deterministic framework clearly and without conflict.

Sounds a bit like pulling your own strings, doesn’t it?

Does any of this touch the claims of the French Existentialists that we’re all condemned to freedom, like it or not? Not really. They’ll still say we have to bear the weight of our choices, we’re still without excuse and without a blueprint to specify our essential human and personal natures in advance of choosing. “Existence precedes essence,” not to choose is still a choice, treating yourself like an object without free possibilities is in bad faith [wiki], and existentialism is a humanism.  Life will still often feel like a heavy boulder we must forever shove up a steep hill, until or unless we choose not to.

My main kick against the existentialists, aside from the fact that many of their statements are literally false (which, as I was saying the other day in class about Nietzsche’s atheism and James’s truth, is not always a criticism), is that they tend to wallow in the specter of nothingness while neglecting the bright side: with freedom comes responsibility, sure, but also opportunity. We’re free to make our choices, bad and good; free to learn from our mistakes, to ameliorate our condition, to pursue our happiness. Camus imagining Sisyphus happy is a nice touch, but it lacks credibility.

William James, on the other hand, faces the Dilemma of Determinism straight up and with a smile.

The great point is that the possibilities are really here. Whether it be we who solve them, or [God] working through us, at those soul-trying moments when fate’s scales seem to quiver, and good snatches the victory from evil or shrinks nerveless from the fight, is of small account, so long as we admit that the issue is decided nowhere else than here and now. That is what gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle… This reality, this excitement, are what the determinisms, hard and soft alike, suppress by their denial that anything is decided here and now, and their dogma that all things were foredoomed and settled long ago.

Determinists, compatibilists, and existentialists all fall short when they suppress our excitement at being alive and a-tingle with reality’s possibilities. I choose, then, to believe with James that when things should be different, we should err on the ameliorists’ side of supposing that maybe they they can be. So mark me down as one of those waffling free will fatalists, straddling the tough and tender divide. No need to foreclose possibilities in advance.

PostscriptThe program says my old pal from Huntsville is co-commenting on his own paper, “A Minimal Schema for Endless Regress Paradoxes.” I thought it must be a misprint, but no: turns out his daunting epistemological subject scared everybody off, so he volunteered to do it himself. What a nice new twist on the regress problem!


October 25, 2012

Albert Camus gave us the Existential version of Sisyphus, and the “fundamental question of philosophy”:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”

OK, got it. My answer is yes, of course life is worth living. Living’s not always easy, but there’s usually something to show for your hard work. It can be a source of happiness. (And what does Sisyphus do after hours?)

The next question, having consented to live, is how. Politics is supposed to help with that. But in this political season, there have been moments when many of us have wondered if it’s all worth it. Camus felt the same.

“Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people’s anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble – yes, gamble – with a whole part of their life and their so called ‘vital interests.”

In less than two weeks, bets are down. Then we’ll all get to decide, again, how much more rock-pushing we can stand. They said on NPR last night that it’s not so easy to move to Canada. We’d better find a way to stay. We must imagine ourselves, on Nov. 7, happy.

Existence in extremis: mad as hell

October 24, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals.  That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi, along with Tim Crane on mind and body (“How could a piece of soft tissue think and feel?”) and more report presentations. [Sartre, Camus @dawn… roads to freedom… deB SEP, IEP… “Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoirtrees and bridges…]

It is arresting to realize that when we get mad and then busy (as Bill McKibben says we must), it’s all at the instigation and the behest of that hunk of soft tissue between our ears: an unlikely candidate for freedom and resistance, and yet it’s fundamentally who and what we are, when suitably harnessed to a motive agent like a body. Like? What else is like a body, in a way capable of executing events in a world?

So, to some of those extreme Gallic statements:


  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”

And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-b0mbs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love.

de Beauvoir:

  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”

Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.

Camus also said

  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

More on him tomorrow.

It’s midterm report presentation time. Dreaming and “Lord of the Rings” were good on Monday, as were yesterday’s reports. Caleb’s song about schadenfreude (or something similar) was terrific, “Philosophy Feud” was fun, Alex and Garrett did a good job delineating the differences between philosophy and psychology, and it was strange to see myself interviewed and impersonated. (Do I really do that many ums and y’knows?) Good job, Paul, Journey, and Landy. You were way more accurate than some Sidelines reporters I’ve spoken with. And that beaming smile Paul projected for me? That’s just how it was, the day they finally mustered me into the Philosophy Club. Unlike Groucho and Woody, I’m happy to belong to any club that would have me for a member.

Speaking of extreme statements: in EEA we’ll discuss the Green Generation, Climate Rage, and mild-mannered McKibben (whom I recall meeting at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, in the very week of Older Daughter’s birth) at his rhetorical wits’ end (“This is Fucked Up“) over our collective failure to confront and address climate change. Then Julianne will talk to us about greening sports stadia etc. Then, maybe, I’ll be ready for the Series. Go Giants!

Field of dreams

October 23, 2012

No, this isn’t a baseball post. But, Go Giants. They’re my second-favorite team. Honestly. (But I wasn’t watching, once the game in Boca Raton started. “Horses and bayonets“: that’s a winner!)

Freud on dreams: for some reason I find myself drawn to this topic, at this moment. Maybe it’s that nightmare, night before last, in which a solicitous stranger unexpectedly produced a weapon and began pelting me with painless coiled darts. Or maybe the repeated spousal reports of snoring, the recent incident of nocturnal laughter, etc.  Is that all supposed to mean something?

“No real progress in a definite direction is as yet discernible” in deciphering dreams and their possible meanings, wrote Freud. But he was sure they weren’t just meaningless static, either. “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” So the trick is to unlock the symbolic mystery. Except when the cigar is just a cigar. How to tell? Write ’em down in a journal, say the experts, and maybe you can begin to write your own lucid slumbering stories. But I agree with Sara: the great enchantment of dreaming is the element of surprise, and of promise.

So I prefer my daydreams, which for the most part involve neither snoring nor suggestive imagery. (Never mind what’s supposed to be on a man’s mind, according to Freud.) They’re about possible futures, not a troubled and traumatic past. Freud appreciated them too, when he wasn’t obsessing over stogies and caves and such. As Maria Popova notes,

[A] piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.

Or as Bobby Kennedy quoted G.B. Shaw,  “I dream things that never were and ask, why not?” That’s what dreams are really good for: expanding our comprehension of what might be possible, for playful spirits of every age.

Some worry that technology is killing our capacity to dream. Here’s a TED Talk with a different perspective on that:

“To sleep, perchance to dream”: Hamlet may have been tired of life, but the deepest dreamers dream of the life still to come. I’ll take Michael Chabon’s “Omega Glory” over T.C. Boyle’s council of doom any day. Or night. I still wish I’d said this:

If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free.

Yes, we’re dreaming. Of course we are. Maybe that’s what it really means to be alive.

Freud, Russell, Ayer, time

October 22, 2012

Everybody’s Fall Break is through, at last. Time in CoPhi for Freud, Russell, Ayer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”). [Freud and Russell @dawn]

Plus, presentations begin with Sara’s “Why Do We Dream?”– what would Freud say?– and essays are due. Busy days! How’m I gonna make time for the World Series? Guess I’ll gratefully reinvoke James’s example and “just take my moral holidays.”

Thanks in advance, class, for not asking when your papers will be graded. (And maybe I won’t ask when you’ll be posting those questions and comments that were supposed to go up on Wednesday and Thursday). Your patience will be rewarded, your impatience reviled.

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own. He claimed it in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]

Back to the question of time: Mellor’s point is that time lacks objective tense (past, present, future), not that it is an illusion. This may take some time to grasp, for
 if you think of tense as a feature of the world, that is an illusion. [But] what is not an illusion is that we are in the world, and need to think about it, and especially about how to act in it, in terms of tense… time itself– tenseless time, what makes events earlier and later than each other– is indeed a real feature both of the world, and of our experience of it.
So does he agree with Einstein, who said “the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one,” or not? Yes and no.
Time and again, time after time, the intersection of philosophy and physics is maddeningly inconclusive. Add history to the mix and you get logic-defying paradox. The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined (will determine?) that time travel is impossible. But apparently that just goes for this actual universe, at this point in time. Hmmm. Logic aside, however, it’s at least biologically impossible to go into the past and annihilate your own forebears. That should be reassuring, though of course it would destroy a lot of amusing plot-points in film and fiction (not to mention Trek).
BTW: we might want to use this topic as a springboard back to Nietzsche and his strange notion of eternal recurrence. And what about Deja Vu, all over again? Have we all been here before? Well, that would imply the real existence of tense, wouldn’t it?
Does your head hurt yet, Geordi? Or yet again?
In EEA we’ll discuss Willie’s presentation on veganism, Van Jones’s Green Collar Economy, Billy Parish’s “Climate Generation,” and Mike Tidwell’s paradoxical advice to “stop going green” (but not really)… if there’s time.

School daze

October 20, 2012

Back from our whirlwind tour of schools in Rhode Island, Massachussetts, and (ahem) Knoxville.

The early decision? We liked Roger Williams, whose statue (our guide claimed) features the body of Ben Franklin and the head of (yikes!) Ted Williams. And Suffolk seemed nice, though it was impossible finding a place to park.

Didn’t make it this trip to URI, Brown, Clark, Hampshire… So many schools, so little time!

I like to complain, as a Vandy guy, a foe of anti-scholastic collegiate sports culture, and   a soap-box crusader against football factory mania, about UT. But I have to admit, they put on an impressive Scholars Invitational program yesterday. The French prof who cited Dolly Parton as a philosopher and defended the diversity of east Tennessee was funny, and the journalism rep who used to be a producer at ABC was sharp.

But Older Daughter thinks she’d really like being a Gull, not a Hawk or a Vol or anything else.

We’ll see.  Maybe one more trip to Memphis will bring final clarity.