Archive for January, 2013

What the Stoics have done for us

January 31, 2013

It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in CoPhi today, on the Stoics EpictetusCicero, and Seneca. Should leave students plenty of time to do some extra research and fill out the meaning and context of these squibs:

 ’Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life.

‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch…

Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t.

Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment.

Epictetus started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience.

The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca.

Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn’t worry in any event.]

For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have.

The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions.

[“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“… Seneca on anger (de Botton)]

But Nigel Warburton‘s question is on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all.

Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.

And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

We also give a listen today to Alexander Nehemas on friendship. He says the imperative of personal loyalty “can’t be accommodated within the constraints of morality,” and sometimes should be allowed to trump moral values. I’ll be interested to hear of instances in which any of us have perceived a conflict between our values and our friends, and of how we’ve resolved them.  Ever had a Huck Finn moment, an “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” resolution of a conflicted conscience?

Well, Huck was no Epicurean. He still credited hell as a plausible possibility. But even an Epicurean can face down the moral equivalent of hell, the misapprobation of one’s nurturing community. No one wants to be cast out of The Garden, but in the end you have to be able to live with yourself before you can be a really good communitarian.

And, to be a good communitarian you also have to be a good citizen of the earth. Paul Hawken reminds us that knowing our way around our natural habitat is a prerequisite of responsible and civilized citizenship. “Living within the biological constraints of the earth may be the most civilized activity a person can pursue, because it enables our successors to do the same.” But we mostly fail on that score, in the industrialized world. We live like Oncelers, not like friends of the earth.

We have little understanding of where our water and food come from, the impacts of our cars and homes, the activities undertaken by others around the globe to support our lifestyle, and the effects we have on the environment and its people. Blessed Unrest

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not. The Lorax

All right, then, we’ll go to hell too. Unless we wise up, as Huck would say, right quick, and go whole hog for our biotic community, our home and host the world.

Synthetic biology, life from life

January 30, 2013

And so we begin, in Bioethics, with the exciting new world of synthetic biology. Many will be tempted to lead with the question “How can this new thing hurt us?”

Stewart Brand, Whole Earther and Eco-pragmatist, calls that a misplaced “national security perspective” that would lock us into a paranoid position of self-defeating Luddism.  Far better, he thinks (and I agree) to ask how new developments in biotechnology, genomic and medical science (etc.) might possibly help us. Then, analyze and evaluate the risk and proceed, with caution. For

technoparanoia has a way of being self-fulfilling. It institutionalizes distrust [and] sees only threat and only enemies, and thereby helps to create both. Whether you’re defending a nation or the natural world, a more useful assumption with any new technology is that it is neutral, and so are the people creating it and using it. Your job is to help maximize its advantages and minimize its harm… the best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it…

That’s an interesting perspective, coming from an old counter-culturist who became a confidante and adviser of the Governor of his state (who, btw, is Governor again, this time without the Moonbeam aura). What a long strange trip, for him and for us all.

So, synthetic life? Bring it on, Craig Venter. We’ll see if Gaia has any objections.

The future of life, says Venter, depends on our learning to program life’s software. He says we can bio-engineer everything. He and his privately-funded colleagues are working on applications in food, medicine, and a clean fuel that eats CO2. “Playing God?” No, he says, just trying to understand and apply the rules of life.

So again, proceed with caution. But…

Excessive caution is not a good option either. [precautionary principle] Scott Sampson reminds us that we face a severely truncated future unless we do, umm, something or other. We’re definitely not the first with short-sighted and murderously exploitative intent. He must mean we’re the first to wield the weapons of potentially species-wide annihilation. It’s good, though no fun, to be reminded.

Craig Venter is happy to anticipate the re-design of life, having positioned himself to profit from it. Should it bother us that our master re-designers have a vested financial interest in overturning the genetic status quo, and that scientific method has become a corporate strategy? Obviously, we all have a stake in overturning genetic disease. But if there’s money in fixing what ain’t broke…? Is Venter really the new Frankenstein? Has he brought us to a turning point from which he cannot find our way home? [Spreading out]

Is Venter “playing god“? Or is it the other way around?
jesus and mo venter

Also on the docket today: intelligent design, psychopharmacolgy, and robot ethics.

This is gonna be fun!

[Synthetic biology in the nyt… Venter in the nyt… Venter in Wired (“Redefining the Origin of Species“… Twain’s techno-optimismGenome by Matt Ridley… A Life Decoded by Craig Venter… Venter on Sixty Minutes Generosity by Richard Powers… generosity 2]

Pyrrho, Epicurus, Blackburn, Sandel

January 29, 2013

That’s the menu today in CoPhi. A deep skeptic, a seeker of simple pleasures and happiness, an anti-relativist, and an anti-doping anti-perfectionist (with the world’s most popular course on justice.)

But first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.

As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.

pigReminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Hecht comments:

“This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.

piranhaOne more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

And as for Epicurus:

Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Last time we had this discussion in CoPhi, Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. Lance Armstrong must be feeling a pretty big meaning-deficit these days.

I’ve been thinking some more, btw, about a student’s question whether Oprah is a philosopher. I’d say she has philosophical moments, sometimes asks the hard questions, and is indeed seeking to have and share a “graceful” (if opulent) life. So, sure. Same for the poets (like Whitman) who let us off the hook for contradicting ourselves (“I contain multitudes.”) I don’t think the Philosophy Club should be exclusive or restrictive. Many of my colleagues would disagree, amongst themselves, at their annual association meetings and in their ivory towers. They’ll never give me a car, either.

Anyway: we won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

A pragmatic approach to bioethics

January 28, 2013

We’re just about to get down to cases in Bioethics. Today we’ll sort ourselves into discussion groups, each of which will be getting its own new case to unwrap and explore every class for the next several weeks. Topics will typically reflect the sprawling quality of this relatively-new field. Next time, for instance, we’ll be looking at synthetic biology, intelligent design, psychopharmacolgy, and robot ethics.

Speaking of ‘bots: Did you catch Ray Kurzweil’s interview in the Times Magazine yesterday, touching on one of our many topics-to-come (from Case 25)?

This idea of creating a whole virtual body with nanobots, that’s more like a 2050 scenario. But by the 2030s we’ll be putting millions of nanobots inside our bodies to augment our immune system, to basically wipe out disease. One scientist cured Type I diabetes in rats with a blood-cell-size device already.

Ray goes on to say he’d shift his focus to cancer research, if he felt the need personally. Hmmm.

Our tour guide across the varied bioethical landscape is the controversial but astute Glenn McGee, founding editor of The American Journal of Bioethics and fellow Vandy alum. Seems I’ve been following Glenn for awhile now, out of grad school, in and out of Belmont University (just a cameo there, in my case), and now I’ll be following his lead in structuring our course according to his design in a breezy, enlightening, informative, provocative, and (I’m sorry to report) less than meticulously copy-edited new volume that should still suit our purposes to a tee: Bioethics for Beginners: 60 Cases and Cautions From the Moral Frontier of Healthcare.

Here’s Glenn discussing the old muddled dream of human perfectibility through eugenics.

Like the good pragmatist he is, and anticipating Michael Sandel later in the semester, he’ll reject the case for perfection in general. But he’ll also make a strong pragmatic case for ameliorating life to the extent of our powers, ethically and (so far as we can manage it) progressively. This is right up my own pragmatic alley. Introducing Pragmatic Bioethics a few years ago, McGee noted that

John Dewey and William James, the latter a physician, are but two of the figures in classical American philosophy who devoted quite a bit of attention to the role of their philosophy in reconstructing the social meaning of health care… Scholars of classical American philosophy… were among those who created what is today called bioethics.

And that makes this a “perfect” class for us to tackle.

One more thing, Downton fans: isn’t it sad about Lady Sibyl!? Do you think the specialist ob-gyn (“Sir Philip Tapsell”) violated any ethical rules last night? Could or should “Dr. Clarkson” have done anything more? Are there rules for resolving discordant medical opinions? Let the chauffeur decide?

Magisteria and Weltanschauungs

January 25, 2013

I’ve been enjoying the new semester’s many co-philosophical conversations immensely. With three classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays that’s twelve separate confabs per day, plus all-inclusive wrap-ups, not counting Bioethics (where we’re still just getting started) and staff meetings (where we never get finished) and office hours. The simplest of technologies, a lowly call bell, has been a brilliant innovation. We’ve been answering.


I’ve also been toting coffee to class. To be awake is to be alive. (But co-phers, you’re gonna have to toss some coins in the “donation” bin if you want the good stuff to keep on flowin’. Otherwise, when the XMAS blend is gone it’ll be the Kroger Value Brand…)

I’m also enjoying my fourth Thursday class, an informal tutorial on Science & Religion that meets happily during Happy Hour on the other side of East Main. Yesterday we put Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-overlapping Magisteria, NOMA, to rest. RIP. SJG was a terrific and biting polemicist but he was just wrong: any religion worth its salt does indeed make or imply claims about the world’s facticity, and cannot in intellecutal conscience or political prudence be left strictly to its own sphere of internal discourse. I understand the pluralistic impulse to live and let live, and let a thousand worldviews bloom. I also understand something SJG probably did not about the “mind of the south.” Most of my religious neighbors aren’t too keen on striking the sort of concordat he proposed.

And yet, and yet… Gould was that rare scientist with the soul and pen of a poet, and the sensibility of a renaissance scholar. He was in error on this question, but he was also a genuine philosopher. Can’t say that for 99% of the working scientists I’ve encountered. He was (Michael Shermer reports) moved by mountains and stars.

He was also a baseball fan. Now do you understand his appeal to me, D&D?


So, once more for my CoPhi collaborators:  “What is philosophy?”

“It is a Weltanschauung, an intellectualized attitude towards life. “

There. Clears it right up. Why couldn’t all those confused and laughing philosophers simply have said that?

Oh yeah: every time I’ve ever asked students about their weltanschauungs, they either giggled or recoiled or looked nonplussed… as though I’d mentioned something not suitable for discussion in polite company.

So let me clarify.

The quote is from William James, trying in the first chapter of his last published (posthumous) work (Some Problems of Philosophy1911) to answer the Philosophy Bites stumper question “What is philosophy?”

And here to clarify the Jamesian clarification is Herr Doktor ProfessorFreud, writing two decades later:

By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place. It is easy to see that the possession of such a Weltanschauung is one of the ideal wishes of mankind. When one believes in such a thing, one feels secure in life, one knows what one ought to strive after, and how one ought to organise one’s emotions and interests to the best purpose.

Oh. “No question is left open” by a good weltanschauung? In that case, I ain’t got one and I really don’t want one. The open questions are the ones that get me out of bed in the morning and give me something to talk about at work.

And James felt the same way. He was always ambivalent about philosophy, and his dying words were: “What has concluded, that we may conclude with regard to it?”

Nothing, is of course the implicitly correct reply. (BTW: Freud and James met once, in 1909, and reportedly had a fairly spirited conversation. But you know what was really on Freud’s mind, right?)

So philosophy is an open-ended, never-ending quest for clarity that gives you an “intellectual attitude” and feeds your curiosity. It is intellectually unifying, to that extent, but should never be stultifying. As James’s thorny friend Charley Peirce insisted: “Do not block the road of inquiry.”

One more thing: good philosophy is interesting.

 Philosophy, indeed, in one sense of the term is only a compendious name for the spirit in education which the word ‘college’ stands for in America. Things can be taught in dry dogmatic ways or in a philosophic way.

So there’s the gauntlet I’ll be picking up, as chief facilitator of three sections of CoPhilosophy at MTSU: don’t be dry, don’t kill curiosity or the cats who have it, don’t dogmatize. And don’t block the road.

Or as DNA pioneer James Watson put it: avoid boring people.

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Savalescu

January 24, 2013

Now then, what’s up with those old Greeks? Some of their transgressive behavior might elicit a “yuk” from some of us. And by the way, isn’t it funny how a “yuk” can be either a laugh or a groan? Julian Savulescu* has some thoughts about the latter sense of the word, the instinctive revulsion we all feel for something or other.  Where does that come from? What’s it good for? When can’t we trust it? (Well, that hemlock can’t have been too appetizing.) But first,

In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories

And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.

Socrates asked a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey. (Just kidding, that was a dated SNL reference my students probably won’t get.) Socrates was in fact from the deme Alopece, near Athens.  He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go.  He was an impious and relentless corrupter of youth, said the court that convicted him of those charges in 399 B.C. and made him a perpetual role-model to western philosophers like me forever after. Woody Allen is a fan, too.

Plato, they say, could stick it away-they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.

Aristotle‘s in the song as well, but never mind. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided CAPS and abstractions, and inspired the name for our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum.

(Our first Lyceum lecture of the season is coming right up, btw, a week from Friday. Richard Shusterman‘s  our distinguished visiting philosopher. He believes ” improved body consciousness can enhance one’s knowledge, performance, and pleasure.” Come if you can, locals & regionals (& Vandy friends) for the talk and food & drink at a colleague’s home afterwards.)

The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands.

*Julian Savulescu, an Oxford bioethicist, is our first Philosophy Bites interviewee. Did Nigel just want to get the topic of revulsion out of the way? No, I think LH begins with this because we usually recoil too quickly from the things that disgust, revolt, repel, and appall us. A good philosopher tries to understand these reactions, examine and sometimes challenge them, rather than rely strictly on the “yuk” feeling  to guide all our choices and attitudes. The message is clear: in philosophy it’s not enough to emote, we’ve also got to think.


January 23, 2013

Bioethics, at last! I was beginning to think this day would never come.

Classes at our school began last Thursday, too late in the week for our MW course in Bioethics. Then, Monday was a holiday. But now our first class is nearly upon us.

So what’s it all about? Well, my course description says

This course explores ethical issues arising from the practice of medical therapeutics (conventional and “alternative”), from the development of new biomedical technologies, and more largely from reflections on life’s meaning and prospects.
The course aims at clarifying relevant bioethical and medical issues and debates, representing various perspectives in application to present and future human possibilities and concerns (for example: genetic engineering and biochemical “enhancement,” longevity and life extension, end-of-life decisions, health care access, nanotechnology, cloning, stem cell research, mood and performance-enhancing pharmaceutical use, animal research, and reproductive technologies).
“Bio” means simply life, but questions about life’s goals, about appropriate means for attaining them, and about the professions devoted to sustaining life, give rise to the most complex and enduring ethical problems.
So, ours is a course in life ethics, really the ethics and morality of life and death, and all points in-between. That’s pretty broad. Just as I like it.
But this semester’s course circumscribes our topic a bit more. We’ll look at Glenn McGee’s cases, then we’ll review Michael Sandel’s case against perfection, and finally we’ll ponder Richard Powers’ plea for generosity with respect to “enhancement.”
As one of the students says in her self-intro, “I am very excited about this class and wonder what is in store for all of us.”
Me too!

“What is philosophy?”

January 22, 2013


That’s a funny question, apparently. Several of our Philosophy Bites respondents respond by simply laughing, or changing the subject, or stonewalling. “Philosophy is an unusual subject in that its practitioners don’t agree what it’s about.” No kidding. That may be the understatement of the millennium. Gathering philosophical consensus amongst professional philosophers is a lot like herding cats.

But a few common themes do emerge: the quest for clarity, as my colleague the pragmaticist (sic.) would insist. The Sellarsian urge to see how things hang together. (I met Sellars once, after he gave a talk at my undergrad alma mater. He wasn’t hanging together too well, he and Quine in the kitchen.) The stubborn refusal to accept convention and common sense without a critical challenge.

A few of the cats’ meows:

Richard Bradley: “Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.”

Clare Carlisle: “Most simply put it’s about making sense of all this . . . We find ourselves in a world that we haven’t chosen. There are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting it and finding meaning in the world and in the lives that we live.”

Donna Dickenson: “Philosophy is what I was told as an undergraduate women couldn’t do—by an eminent philosopher who had best remain nameless. But for me it’s the gadfly image, the Socratic gadfly: refusing to accept any platitudes or accepted wisdom without examining it.”

Anthony Kenny: “Philosophy is thinking as clearly as possible about the most fundamental concepts that reach through all the disciplines.”

Will Kymlicka: “Well I’m in a philosophy department but I’m always wondering what exactly I have in common with many of my colleagues, because, to be frank, I don’t necessarily understand the work they do in the philosophy of language or metaphysics. ”

Ray Monk: “Philosophy is the attempt to understand ourselves and the world.”

A. W. Moore: “I’m hard pressed to say, but one thing that is certainly true is that ‘What is Philosophy?” is itself a striking philosophical question.”

Raymond Tallis: “My dream of philosophy is to make the universe we live in mind-portable…”

Michael Sandel: “Philosophy always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better.”

*Thomas Pogge: “I think wisdom is understanding what really matters in the world. In my view what really matters is the enormous injustice that’s being perpetrated on the poor in this world.

Jeff McMahan: “Can I just laugh? I have no idea what philosophy is.” 

TwainCatBottom line seems to be: philosophy is whatever philosophers think they’re doing, but don’t try telling them what to do. That really would be like herding cats.

On the other hand: to paraphrase Mark Twain, messing with cats teaches you things you can learn no other way. It just might be worth the scratch and bother.

Creative tension

January 21, 2013

On MLK Day, 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 the late great Hitch, no small instigator of creative tension himself, have the last (for once) uncontroversial word:

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

Wisdom in American politics: what a concept. But taking the long view, it’s still possible to dream of progress and a better world. Forward!

A fun Day 1!

January 18, 2013

Day 1 was fun, with all those introductions and not so much “explanation” from me. Teachers need to remember: students are people too. They deserve to be met and heard, not just lectured at.

So, I’ll put away the Opening Day necktie (I wonder if my footballers and cheerleaders noticed the themetie?) ’til next Fall, roll up my sleeves, and get down to trying to explain a bit more on Tuesday.

As my first class concluded and disbanded yesterday in Room 204, students crowded in for Professor M’s to follow. I made a prediction to them: Professor M will write a long and somewhat difficult quote from the philosopher Peirce on the board. Let me know next time if I’m not correct. (After so many years we can all mime not only our own opening acts but also those of our colleagues,  to a point. I threw a curve this year, though.)

Then I headed back upstairs to my office, sat down at my desk, looked up and across the hall into 304, and what did I see? The confirming remnant of Professor M’s just-concluded previous class:


It’s the very statement I’d just forecast downstairs,  a quote from C.S. Peirce, contending that philosophy is a branch of science.

It’s decidedly not my view. I see science as a branch of philosophy, not the other way around. Some religion, too. It all begins in wonder, curiosity, and plurality. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that, this semester.

But I’m also sure that Professor M will teach a great Intro to Philosophy course. There’s no single royal road to wisdom, no exclusive source and sustainer of wonder.

That’s why we’re co-philosophizing in my classes. It’s gonna be a lot of fun, especially if the theists hang in there with me. I came out of the closet: I’m a humanist, a secularist, a naturalist, and when push comes to shove, an atheist. Some also call me an accomodationist. If more ‘ists are really needed, though, I prefer “pluralistic meliorist.”

That should be enough fog to hold off the positivist reductionists, no?

But it also presses the next inescapable question, the one D&D will be taking up with me in our late-Thursday afternoon independent readings course on Religion, Rationality, & Science: are science and religion compatible? Really compatible, not just in the way marriage and infidelity can be (as David astutely noted), but more like salt and pepper?

Or like humans and chimps, perhaps? Evolutionists are often asked, by deeply-confused fundamentalists: why are there still monkeys? Just as you could also ask, more than a century and a half after Darwin, why  there are still theists. Or: why tolerate religion?

My working hypothesis is that there are still theists for the same reason there are still other kinds of primate: common descent, shared ancestry, developmental divergence from the same tree of life. It’s all related, we’re all related, theists and atheists, philosophers and scientists, believers and skeptics.  Same tree, same source, different branches.

I suggested that we preface next week’s discussion of Stephen Jay Gould’s notorious “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) proposal with a peek at Evolution.

This really is going to be a fun semester.