Archive for March, 2013

Affecting the quality of the day

March 30, 2013

Well that was interesting: logged on as usual but, for the first time in 1K+ dawns, was met by an ominous “Oops” from wordpress. “Small system error” etc. (??!!)

Small death, more like. (Just watched Princess Bride the other night with Older Daughter, Mandy Patinkin’s “prepare to die” still echoing with fresh awful resonance.) The set and comforting habit of a thousand dawns does not die quietly. I’ve heard tales of blogs mysteriously disappearing into the void, never to be recovered.

But not today, thank goodness. “Refresh” worked. (Hope I’ve been doing the “export” backup correctly.)

So what I was just about to say, before the “system” so rudely interrupted…

If the days are gods, Emerson must’ve known, they’re not clones of the Judeo-Christian god: they’re not officially “all good.” A case could be made, though, for the worst of them fitting Dawkins’  description.

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

(What a confrontation he and He might have at the Pearly Gates, as cleverly imagined here.)

No, the day-gods are Greek and Roman: powerful, unpredictable, delightful, terrible, capricious, reassuring, painful, pleasant, emotional, disconnected, willful, forgiving, mean, generous, dreary, sunny, short, long, busy, boring, creative, sluggish.

And at daybreak, whenever we rise to meet them, they’re still always full of challenge and possibility. And for us too, most important of all, they’re mortal. Hence the deep wisdom of Henry’s  observation: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Affecting the quality of the day is how we mortals pursue happiness, or don’t. The quality of my day was elevated yesterday by a few things, lunch with Older Daughter at Woodlands not least. Then the pleasure of assembling a flyer for PHIL 3160, The Philosophy of Happiness, for which students at my school will soon be registering in droves. Then Jon Miller and the Giants on the MLB channel from SF, stoking my eager anticipation of another season in the sun.

If the days are gods, what does that make Opening Day?

Transcendentalism at home

March 29, 2013

Thinking this morning about the Transcendentalism chapter of my book-in-progress on walking and philosophy.

Good philosophy transcends mere theory and solves some of the practical problems of life, said Thoreau. Take housework. Please.

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.

Simple solution. (But what to do about that cat on my desk? Can I fling him too? Wanted to, when he woke me in the wee hours battling his counterpart on the other side of the French doors in the library.)

Another practical problem a walker must solve, especially this time of year, is yardwork – not how to do it, but how to hold it safely at bay, away from our sacred hours of perambulation. Henry’s friend Emerson:

I delight in long free walks. These free my brain and serve my body. . . . But these stoopings and scrapings and figurings in a few square yards of garden are dispiriting, driveling, and I seem to have eaten lotus, to be robbed of all energy, and I have a sort of catalepsy, or unwillingness to move, and have grown peevish and poor-spirited.

Precisely. But it’s a simple solution again: toss that rake and shovel, slide away from the barrow, step over the mulch-pile, stride swiftly and repeat. Don’t look back.

The days are gods.

Rising in freedom

March 28, 2013

It’s an exam day, so I’m free to think and talk about whatever I please this morning. In fact, my family’s on Spring Break this week (half of them at the beach), so I’ve been free to alter daily routines in all kinds of ways. Coulda slept in an hour this morning. But I and my dawn habit chose otherwise.

FreeThe Existentialists warn us against the “bad faith” of supposing our freedom merely occasional and intermittent. Like Phil Connors, we’re always free to pound the alarm into submission.

(Thanks for the .gif of endless repetition, Quinlan.) We don’t have to get up, go to work or school, give or take that “miserable” exam James said good students should care less about, the night before.

Then again, freedom really does become dreadfully burdensome when it drives us to subvert our own larger goals and aspirations. Sleeping in and skipping out might feel free today, but how will it feel in six weeks when you get that disappointing course grade? Or in six years, when you still don’t have that degree?

No, when my alarm rings I find it far more constructive to side with the pragmatic defenders of habit, routine, repetition, and the illusion of  personal compulsion. I do “have to” get up, because I’ve already made the choice to live well and be at least as happy as Sisyphus. Existence precedes essence, sure. But who wants only to exist? We want to flourish.

And also, of course, because body clocks are harder to pound into submission than digital alarms.

Tests, pandemics, libraries, unions…

March 27, 2013

We’re back to cases in Bioethics (after one last report presentation),  beginning with Glenn McGee’s call for more aggressive and routine HIV testing, his concern about the risk of resurrecting a flu pandemic, and his plea for healthcare workers to acknowledge “their civic duty to care for the sick in a time of crisis.” [Lessons from 1918]

Then, a surprising episode of deliberate information-destruction by the EPA leading Glenn to recall the infamous sacking of the Library of Alexandria (as in turn recalled by Carl Sagan).

How do we balance civil liberties with public health, when quarantine seems only prudent?

Do American docs need unions, when they already enjoy “the highest physician salaries in the world”?

Or lawyers, when “medical mistakes cause more deaths than gun violence, bus crashes, and airplane accidents combined”?

And do we need a new Florence Nightingale to remind us that public sanitation and other environmental factors may have a greater positive impact on health than new drugs and medical technologies?

Sartre, deBeauvoir, Camus, Crane

March 26, 2013

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?”). [SartreCamus @dawn… roads to freedom… deB SEP,IEP… “Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoirtrees and bridgesSartre’s cat]

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-bombs 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. At least the guy who said hell is other people liked cats.

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.”

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.”

Politics was supposed to be all about freeing the people to pursue happiness, Mr. Jefferson said. If it’s hard to imagine Sisyphus happy, it may be harder to expect that from our politics these days. But we must keep on pushing.

Sustainable places

March 23, 2013

Our friend Kelly Parker came down from Grand Rapids and gave us a very nice Lyceum talk yesterday on sustainability, an environmental buzz-word so much in vogue lately that it threatens to swamp our language.

That was his opening laugh line, as Kelly showed us a graph trending literally in that direction. But it carries the serious implication that our response to the environmental crisis would then be all talk and no action. That’s not a sustainable human future.


“Sustainability” is clearly easier said than done.

So, what ought we to sustain? A reasonable story with wide popular appeal, about why the way we’re living (consumptively, fossil-foolishly, short-sightedly, unjustly) cannot continue. How do we write that story? By re-connecting with the places we call home, cherishing them, defending them against the “developers” who would pave and parcel them into private gain. Kelly the transplanted Kansan (Texan, Tennessean, Michigander) turned to the French vintner’s concept of “terroir” to elucidate this proposal, but he could as effectively have turned to Kentucky’s Wendell Berry.

  • The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.
  • A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.
  • There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
  • What I stand for is what I stand on.
The big question is how to turn such attitudes to effective action. How does a sense of place become an effective reform movement?
We need to script shared stories rooted in our shared places, Kelly was saying, so we may better “occupy” them and give a winning public account of why the developers, desecrators and destroyers have no moral leg to stand on when they try to lay claim to our communities. Then our occupation might stand a chance of becoming an effective agency for sustainable social action, not  just inarticulate public talk or ineffectual classroom eloquence.
Postscript. One inescapable irony must be noted: the place where we have been holding these bi-annual Lyceum lectures for twenty-odd years is about to be developed into office space. James Union Building room 304 is not sustainable. Sigh.

Freud, Russell, Ayer, time

March 21, 2013

Time in CoPhi for FreudRussellAyer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”). [Freud and Russell @dawn]

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]

…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!!”

No moral system can rest solely on authority.

There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.


There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. It it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you should not… it’s intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?  [Why I Am Not a Christian… More Russell]



Freud is darker than Nietzsche… Sheer joy and sheer affirmation of life is pretty hard to find, if you’re being absolutely honest about what reality is.

As long as your ideas of what’s possible are limited by what’s actual, no other idea has a chance.

If life is a gift, then the more you partake in it, the more you show thanks.

[Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists]


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 (willdetermine?) 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?
I think Tagore’s butterfly still has the best perspective on time.

Medical materialism and the infamous violinist

March 20, 2013

Midterm reports roll on, in Bioethics, to their conclusion today. Last time Austin asked if we are an overmedicated society, answering with  Ivan Oransky’s TEDMED talk and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. Short answer is yes, of course we are. We’re overmedicated, overprescribed, overreliant on nonmedical and corporate players in the healthcare system (drugmakers, insurers et al), overneglected by political players who don’t lead and don’t address these issues,  overconfident in the power of docs to dispense magic bullets for every condition.

The human condition itself, with its normal range of emotional states reflecting the up-and-down circumstances of living, has been medicalized. But unless you’re afflicted by congenital and incurable illness, or you’re Schopenhauer or Eeyore, your life is not cataloged is the DSM. Your every experience is not a symptom. William James called this attitude “medical materialism,” and he was right to call it too simple-minded.

Cassie also reported last time, on the human right to life itself and on the abortion issue. She took a hard line and bit the bullet, declaring a pregnant woman’s right to life no more urgent or compelling or established than that of the unborn life within her, no matter the circumstances of conception or  the predictable prospects for life of her progeny. She was unimpressed by Judith Jarvis Thomson‘s notorious violinist thought-experiment, which Alexander posed for us.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?

More to point, is this really a good analogy for abortion? Generations of ethicists have now debated and differed over this preposterous scenario. I’ll just say what I said in class: in difficult circumstances the “right to life” is a tough call. We don’t want uninformed politicians, opinionated medical professionals, or overconfident ethicists making it.

And that’s all I want to say about that.

Peirce, James, Nietzsche, Stroud

March 19, 2013

PeirceJamesNietzsche (LH) and Barry Stroud’s Philosophy Bites discussion of Scepticism await our return to CoPhilosophizing today, after Spring Break. (Notice, class: for some reason the Brits prefer to spell that with a “c”-but I’m still skeptical.)

“Can I trust my senses? Can I tell that I’m not now dreaming?” I’m pretty sure I can. But Maria Popova (who, btw, is also a William James fan) passes along a surprising stat: there’s a 1 in 10 chance that you’re snoozing right now. Wake up and post your questions! (And next time, when we talk about Freud, we can also revisit Maria’s past Monday post on Freud and daydreaming.) Be lucid, please.

As for those other guys… I’ve written reams on them all, most delightedly on WJ. [PeirceJamesNietzsche @dawn]

I’m not especially pleased with Nigel Warburton’s take on James, true enough to the letter but not at all to the spirit of his pragmatic conception of truth. More on that later. At least he gets the squirrel right.

And, he rightly (if inconsistently) points out the non-literal intent of Nietzsche’s infamous “God is dead” proclamation. More to come on that too. Meanwhile, the theists among us will enjoy imagining that their God has the last word.

Bring them back?

March 18, 2013

I look forward to hearing what everyone at my school did on Spring Break last week.

And what did I do, after returning from the American Philosophy conference in New Jersey? Well, I didn’t grade anything (so thanks in advance, students, for not asking about that). I didn’t blog, I didn’t tweet, I didn’t read email. I did spend plenty of quality time at the Middle & High School softball field, at Warner Parks, and at Radnor Lake, where I pondered the wisdom of Rabindranoth Tagore:


“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”

He also said:

“It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.”

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for she was born in another time.”

“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

I don’t know what it all means, precisely, but it’s just the sort of high-minded vagueness a brisk lake-&-ridge hike makes irresistible to a sensibility like mine in March. He and Einstein got along pretty well too.

But now Break’s over and Bioethics is back today, with more midterm reports. We’re all tanned, rested, & ready, right?

Here’s a follow-up of sorts to Andrew’s pre-break report on anthropomorphic speciesism, and a bioethical challenge: if innovations in biotechnology allow us to undo some of the damage of anthropogenic species extinction, should we proceed? Eco-pragmatist Stewart Brand‘s response:

Throughout humankind’s history, we’ve driven species after species extinct: the passenger pigeon, the Eastern cougar the dodo …. But now, says Stewart Brand, we have the technology (and the biology) to bring back species that humanity wiped out. So — should we? Which ones? He asks a big question whose answer is closer than you may think.

Some other stuff that came up while we were breaking:

Widespread Flaws Found in Ovarian Cancer Treatment

Most women with ovarian cancer, which kills 15,000 Americans a year, miss out on treatments that could add a year or more to their lives, a study found.

Too Many Colonoscopies in the Elderly

Nearly a quarter of colonoscopies in patients over age 70 were “potentially inappropriate,” a new analysis finds.

Mary and the Zombies: Can Science Explain Consciousness?

Is a purely physical, scientific account of subjective experience possible?

The Allergy Buster

An experimental new treatment seeks to release children from the terror of severe food allergies.

When Exercise Stresses You Out

Does the stress of being, in effect, forced to exercise, perhaps because your doctor or worried spouse has ordered it, cancel out the otherwise sturdy emotional benefits of physical activity?

Wary of Attack With Smallpox, U.S. Buys Up a Costly Drug

Some experts say a contract for two million doses of a treatment for a disease eradicated in 1980 has the government paying too high a price for too much of a new medicine.

Putting a Value to ‘Real’ in Medical Research

A Laboratory Grows Young Scientists

Stroke Prevention Device Misses Key Goal in Study

F.D.A. Raises Heart Alert on Antibiotic in Wide Use