Archive for September, 2013

The kids are alright

September 30, 2013

Back from the whirlwind Parents’ Weekend, an event designed mainly to reassure parents, especially freshman parents, that the kids are ok. And they are.

She is. That moment on Friday when I first pulled up to the curb outside her dorm and there she stood, thumbing a ride? Made the weekend. Sat in on some classes, found the good beer, enjoyed the park across the street, even had fun at the Saturday football game. And the parting bbq at Central? Just amazing.

But then, the rainy slog home followed by a late-night exam-making session. We do need those contrast experiences, don’t we? Speaking of exams…

What’s the best way to prepare for mine? I keep telling ’em, don’t just memorize stuff. Read, think, re-read, reflect, maybe write a few notes (because writing wires the brain’s memory circuits), then relax and get some sleep. Sometimes life is a ballgame, sometimes it’s an examination, but you’re always better at it when rested and ready.

Here’s how to study, and how (when the time comes) not to:

If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently. William James, “Gospel of Relaxation

If you’ve been up all night cramming, in other words, good luck. You’ll need it. But if you’ve been diligent, have steeped yourself in the subject all semester long, and either went out to play or to an early bed the night before, your luck will be the residue of design. You’ll do fine. Relax.

But don’t try too hard to relax.

It is needless to say that that is not the way to do it. The way to do it, paradoxical as it may seem, is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not.

Care later. On Wednesday. Today & Tuesday just show up and do your best. IGBOK.

But if you didn’t this time, next time really read the books. Really. HTStudy.orgHTReadABook

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Road trip!

September 27, 2013

Not much time to reflect on things this a.m., it’s Parents’ Weekend and I’ve got to pack, then drive. I’ll drop Younger Daughter at school, then hit Krispy Kreme (or she’ll insist on reversing that order),  then hit I-40. Looking forward to sitting in on someone else’s classes this afternoon, for a change. I haven’t done the readings for “Search” and Linguistics, but that’s only because Older Daughter didn’t send them as requested. (Yeah, yeah, slackers always think they have a good excuse.)

Yesterday’s HAP 101 discussion is still on my mind, in particular the interestingly-diagnostic reactions of people to that Alan Watts video and its Sagan-like wisdom that “Billions of years ago you were a Big Bang.” (Carl’s version: “We’re starstuff, pondering the stars.”) Point is, we’re still bangin’… We are the universe, the cosmic “process” turned back on itself in wonder, pondering its destiny and (some of us) dreaming of something marvelous waiting to happen.

Interestingly diagnostic, I say, because some of us thrill to that cosmic perspective while others wrinkle their faces and complain that it somehow shrinks or demeans us to acknowledge our continuity with all those stars and the spaces between them, and all the bugs beneath our feet and the microbes beneath our skin, etc.

Some resonate to Alan’s and Carl’s reassurance that when our species travels to the stars we’ll all be there. Others speak of slugs. Some seem to think that if we’re “all of nature” we must be uncritically accepting and enthusiastic about its every detail. But if they were right about that, a course like ours would make no sense: why study happiness and seek an understanding of what we must change in outer and inner space to satisfy the conditions of our flourishing, if being all of nature means sinking into the block universe never to move again?

Nobody said so yesterday, but I’ll bet some of the naysayers would echo Pascal: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

Well, we don’t know it’s dead silent out there. SETI’s at work, give it time. Meanwhile, we do know that with every passing day it gets a little less silent in rippling rings of radio transmissions spreading out from our ground zero. (Look at that Contact opening again.) Maybe our destiny, or our choice, will be to follow them.

One of my framing questions, for the next segment of our course: are Buddhists (or stoic buddhist pragmatist cherrypickers) more likely, or less, to undertake the initiative required to propel our next big species-elevating adventure? Once you’ve renounced a Self, will you still engineer rocketships and dream of exploration? I used to think clearly not, now I’m not so sure. Neil Tyson seems more the type to push the envelope on space exploration, and he seems the opposite in temper from (say) a Thich Nhat Hanh. But we’ll see.

In any case, “you are here” means not only that we hang suspended in a sunbeam, but that we are entitled to feel at home in the universe. That, to me, is the feeling (and the image) of happiness.

And so is a caffeine and donut-fueled road trip. Ready or not, Older Daughter, here I come.

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“The Scope of Happiness”

September 26, 2013

It’s text transition time in HAP 101, as we come to the end of Sissela Bok’s exploration and prepare to take up Owen Flanagan’s Bodhisattva’s Brain, on the other side of a little exam and three group reports.

Bok took us from Aristotle to brain science, Flanagan will take us from brain science to Buddhism and back again. It’s fitting that we’ve just been pondering illusion, a core concept for those who reject the substantial self and its day-to-day stresses and strains.

So what is the full scope of happiness? Too soon to say, but Bok says this:

I have argued for the greatest possible freedom and leeway in the pursuit of happiness, subject to such moral limits [as a Kantian would impose, e.g. no “happy torturer” need apply]. There is no one view of happiness that should exclude all others, much less be imposed on the recalcitrant. But the pursuit cannot merely involve ‘choosing happiness’ as many advice manuals propose.

That is, our choices must always take cognizance of those others besides ourselves who may have to suffer their consequences. “Deceit, violence, and betrayal” are not reasonable bases of choice, even if we propose to betray only our own personal human potential. Aristotle and Mill have important voices in this conversation.

But so has Bentham. I love poetry and don’t know a thing about pushpin, but if that’s your passion the burden will be on me to show that you ought to give it up to go hear Billy Collins instead.

And so has the Buddha. Stay tuned in October.

As for “the human condition”? I’d summarize it as a combination of blindness and desire. We must struggle to overcome the former, and to satisfy as much of the collective totality of the latter as we can. Good luck to us.

We’ll save our serious discussions of Owen Flanagan’s book for later. Suffice for now to introduce him and it with the following, from the preface and from a recent brain conference:

Flourishing and happiness are not in the head, at least not only in the head. [They] might be in our hands if we pay close attention to which among the myriad experiments in living work well, and which ones not so well… Living well, finding meaning in a material world for finite beings is a really hard problem, the hardest problem of all.

Harder, in fact, than the so-called hard problem of consciousness. And more gratifying to solve. So, we’ll be paying close attention.

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Machiavelli to Cavell

September 25, 2013

It’s MachiavelliHobbes, Dworkin, Posner, Danto, and Cavell in CoPhi, with Quentin Skinner on Machiavelli (and he also has unassigned thoughts on Hobbes). Some of them sound like cricketers, or a law firm. Or both.

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli and Hobbes knew it, a world full of testimonial injustice. Not to mention intrigue, plot, war, and violence. The more things change…

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says. But Skinner and others think he’s gotten a bad name unfairly. (See videos below.)

A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of Fortune. One of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes. Room for one more?

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, he


 lived to 91 in the 17th century and (like John Rawls much later) believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say humans were once “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Nor did he ever have a stage musical.

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel, why do you lock your doors? Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it? How much have we? How much have times really changed?

I for one do not agree that it’s better to be feared than loved, either personally or professionally. And as I place an even greater premium on being listened to, and understood, I owe it to others to really listen to what they’re saying too. It’s when we write one another off, isn’t it, that suspicions arise and conflict ensues? Haven’t we seen that in spades, in our own polity?
Legal scholar Ronald Dworkin thought the best way to rectify political discord and gridlock was for us all to “take rights seriously,” and then “discover (not invent)” the moral principles that would best preserve them. Our guiding light, he said, should be the conviction that “individual life is sacred.”
But, Dworkin found “absurd” the idea that people not yet born might have interests, preliminary to their full claim to possession of rights accruing to them as living persons. That was his blind spot. Until we come fully to appreciate our moral obligation to transmit to our heirs a world worth inheriting, we’ll have no sharp disincentive to prevent the plunder of our only presently-habitable planet for private short-term gain. That’s reprehensible. It dishonors individual life past, present, and future, to recognize only the rights of the living.
Dworkin’s final legacy is the book he was working on, at his death earlier this year at age 81. 

In “Religion Without God,”Dworkin asks to what extent and on what basis should constitutional protection be afforded to religious activities, especially when those activities are in conflict with settled law? Any answer to that question must first define what religion is (something the courts have never been able to do), and Dworkin begins boldly in his very first sentence: “The theme of this book is that religion is deeper than God.” Dworkin doesn’t mean that being religious and believing in God are incompatible; he means that the latter is a possible version of, but not the essence of, the former.

Legal scholar (and Reagan-appointed judge) Richard Posner has tackled another sensitive area, in Sex and Reason. (No, he’s not blown the lid off of reason.) Oddly prompted by Plato’s Symposium and by a curious state statute concerning public nudity, he decided it was high time for the judiciary to avail itself of the “vast cultural material available about sex.” He selflessly volunteered to review it all himself. No prurient interest here, eh judge? In fact, Romano thinks he may be a bit of juris-prude. And for his part, Dworkin thought “many of Posner’s most confident and important judgments highly doubtful or plain wrong.”

Arthur Danto, premier aesthetician of his generation (and former MTSU Lyceum speaker), has interesting thoughts on what makes Andy Warhol’s Brillo cartons and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (click, then scroll to the bottom to see his “Fountain”) works of art. In a word: interpretation. Or in another word: philosophy. “Things which look the same are really different” is Danto’s “whole philosophy of art in a nutshell.” That’s the kind of statement it takes to make someone the “weightiest critic in the Manhattan art world” these days, just in case you’re scrounging for career suggestions. [The end of art]

Stanley Cavell (yet another Harvard prof) is the philosopher who made film a respectable subject for our discipline, and made the world safe for my perpetual references to Woody Allen et al. (Mentioned “Sophie’s Choice” in class just yesterday, “Sarah’s Key” and “Inception” the other day, “Bull Durham” and “Life of Brian” too often to count… guess I should be teaching the philosophy of film class). [Cavell, Day After Tomorrow] I can say with him: “memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life.” Not sure I’d also say, though, that Hollywood embodies “the chief 20th-century expression of the American transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau.”  But I wonder, and will ask my students: has “popular music superseded film as the most important art among young people?”

If so, pop music is still looking for its Cavell. In case you’re not going for art criticism.

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September 24, 2013

You say illusion, I say delusion… but what’s the difference? One source, for what it’s worth, says

an illusion is a fanciful vision or a false impression or idea, a mental state in which one attributes reality to something unreal. Delusion is a mistaken impression or wrong idea, but the word also implies action – the action of fooling with a wrong impression or idea or the condition of being fooled or deceived.

So then, no fooling: a delusion is more active and overt and (thus) potentially more harmful. A good passive illusion does no measurable peripheral harm, and might even do a person some good. A delusion is never a good thing. Is that right?

In our HAP 101 chapter today, Sissela Bok is not especially concerned to mark a sharp and precise dictionary distinction between illu- and delu-… We’re just wondering how much unreality happiness can take, in either a passive or active state.

Or, as I just put it in a postcard: which of our stories can be believed? How true must the stories we tell ourselves be? If a story makes you happy, why shouldn’t you tell it or even believe it (= act on it) in the absence of evidence? Searching questions. What would Harry Potter’s maker say?

Well, somewhere I read her say she doesn’t believe in magic herself. But she’s made a kind of magical thinker of Older Daughter and millions of other millennial wizards. Where’s the harm?

Some would say the harm lies in predisposing ourselves to credulity, when chastity of the intellect is what’s required to live with open eyes. Let me tell you a story, Carl Sagan seductively invites, and what a pretty story it is. (But see his statement on “pretty stories”* below.) Is it exclusively true? Is it everybody’s? Loyal Rue says no, and yes: not exclusively but inclusively true, and true enough to cover and account for every other story anybody ever told or will tell.

Others say there’s more harm in courting scientistic reductionism and coming to devalue art, literature, poetry, history, and the humanities generally. Science is not your enemy, says Steve Pinker to humanists. You have a humanities gap and your science is a little preachy, replies Gary (“Stone”) Gutting (of Notre Dame).

I say there are countless ways of being human, but they all converge in a shared biology and a common species story of natural origin. A kind of compatibilism is possible, so long as our many cultural and literary stories, parables, and myths do not willfully contradict reality as we’ve come to know it. Sagan’s wonderfully clear-eyed statement, not long before his own premature demise:

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with *pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better is to look Death in the eye and be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. Billions & Billions

Some think consciousness is entirely a tissue of illusion, or at least to whatever extent that we suppose our ways of organizing mental life coincide with reality’s own map of itself. But who draws that map? Who speaks for reality, hereabouts anyway, if not us?

I have no clue what it would be like to be a bat, or a dog, or a god. I think I have slightly more insight into what it might be like to be a human in general, and a great deal more into what it’s like to be me. But as Kant tried to tell us, these ways of knowing are contributed from our end. There must be as many conceptual realities as there are possible cognizers. Ours is the product of aeons of contingent species evolution, theirs (whoever they are) will have developed differently.

On top of all that, we’re all storytellers. “Story liars,” my mother-in-law tells us my wife used to call her brother in childhood exasperation. We can stick to our stories all we want, but that doesn’t make all their objects “real.”

Most of my friends here in the American southland suffer the illusion that football matters. They think I’m deluded about the national pastime. Most of us, even those who most loudly protest the risible “reality” on television and in the movies, still have “our shows.” Some of us still even read fiction. (Have you all started Generosity?)

But ok, what we’re really wondering today is whether even the harmless probably- or possibly-false stories ought to be tolerated, let alone encouraged. When Augustine rejoices in a “you” who may not be there, what concern is that of mine? When Marx indicts the illusory opiate of religiously-derived “happiness,” what concern is that of his? When anyone presumes to pronounce on “the only correct” view of happiness, who do they think they are?

I’m pluralistic and Millian about all this, so I’m conflicted. People should be free to believe what they please, so long as they don’t foist their illusions and delusions on others (including their own kids). But humans need to get collectively clearer on what’s true and false in the world, and quickly. These goals seem at cross purposes. Please pass the negative capability.

And then there’s poor Captain Pike.

His horrific reality gives way to pleasant illusion, thanks to the generous pity of some cranially expansive aliens. In his place, I’m sure I’d welcome the same opportunity. The Experience Machine might then make sense. But what about Pike’s real family, and real personal story? If an accident left you paraplegic, would you be ready to chuck it all for a pretty story?
What about Horace’s deluded “Lycas,” whose illusory bliss in an empty theater of the absurd, seems to have harmed no one? “Why treat such a merry and harmless folly as some sort of disease, to be expelled by medication?” Our cures are not always restorative of health and happiness, and when they are we’re not always sold on health and happiness as the greatest good.
But Montaigne, usually so self-effacing (Que sais-je?), spoke up sharply for the critically examined life. “The bliss of delusions such as that of Lycas is not, after all, worth having.”

Madame du Chatelet thought “we owe most of our pleasures to illusions,” and she had a point. The brain is our most important sexual organ, cliche as it is to say so, precisely because it’s so good at flattering us as to our prowess. Or even just our inflated potential.

Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s cheerful ambassador, points to the benefits of “optimism” (a form of illusion in many instances, surely) as a marital aid.

But addictions, to gambling or substances or sex or whatever, really ought to be looked in the eye. The happiness they bring, even if we concede that that’s what it is, rarely endures. And rarely fails to damage lives beyond one’s own. The harm principle, again.

Our attention must of necessity be selective and limited. It must “withdraw from some things in order to deal effectively with others,”  and that means we must anticipate and accept a measure of illusion as unavoidable.

And so, what (if you ask me) is the best, last word (for now) on this subject?

Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.

You can have your harmless illusions, let me have mine, but let’s all still raise the periscope and try to see what we can of what’s really out there. After all, we all live in a yellow submarine… but still, it moves.

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Anselm to Rawls

September 23, 2013

It’s more Saints today in CoPhi, and more Harvards: Anselm & Aquinas (with commentary on the latter from Anthony Kenny), Robert Nozick, and John Rawls.

Anselm stumped for the divine moral perfection (and omnipotence and omniscience) of a being “than which none greater could be conceived.” His Ontological Argument is either ingenious or ridiculous, depending on who you ask. But it rarely persuades those who do not come at it armed with antecedent faith. “Faith seeking understanding,” or maybe just the appearance of rational cover.

Aquinas was sure there had to be an uncaused cause in back of everything, or else we’d never get to an end of explaining. Well, we probably won’t. Not ’til the would-be explainers themselves are gone. But is an uncaused cause really a step forward, explanatorily speaking?

Both of those guys were committed, of course, to belief in a heavenly afterlife. Samuel Scheffler, in the Stone yesterday, wrote of the afterlife here. Here, of course, is where people live the lives their beliefs inform. Life, not god or supernaturalism, is the natural impulse behind religion. Dewey’s continuous human community is another way of naming nature’s afterlife. 

But what if you learned that the species would expire within a month of your own passing? That’s Scheffler’s thought experiment. He thinks he and we would be profoundly unsettled, that life would suffer an instant meaning collapse, and that this shows how invested we all are in a natural afterlife for humans (though not each of us in particular) on earth. He thinks “the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.” That’s what he means when he begins his essay: “I believe in life after death.” 

He also explained his view on Philosophy Bites.

Our old dead Italian Saints said nothing about this, so far as I’m aware. Anthony Kenny does say Aquinas still agreed with Aristotle about “the best way to spend your lifetime down here on Earth,” that happiness is ultimately an activity rather than a feeling, and that “the supreme happiness for rational beings was an intellectual activity.” To Aristotle’s standard “pagan virtues” he added faith (in Christian revelation), hope (for heavenly ascent), and charity (toward god and neighbor).
But the charity he seems to admire most in Aquinas is of the intellectual variety, “always trying to balance arguments from both sides” and treat those whose conclusions he disputes with civility.

Neither of today’s 20th century Harvard philosophers was a Saint, but both were civil.
Robert Nozick began his academic career as a narrow analyst and wunderkind libertarian, but evolved well beyond his starting place. He came to realize that astringent libertarianism neglects “the reality of our social solidarity and humane concern for others.” He came also to the view that “thinking about life is more like mulling it over” than like pinning it with a syllogism. “It feels like growing up more.” He kept growing, ’til stomach cancer took him at age 63.
Nozick’s chapter on dying in The Examined Life begins,

THEY SAY NO ONE is able to take seriously the possibility of his or her own death, but this does not get it exacdy right. (Does everyone take seriously the possibility of his or her own life?) A person’s own death does become real to him after the death of both parents.

He’s right about that.
Before his death (as Yogi Berra might have said) Nozick gave us the good old Experience Machine. We just talked about this the other day in HAP 101.

John Rawls, says Carlin Romano, wrote “the most important book of English-language political theory since Mill’s On Liberty. His goal was a coherent theory of “justice as fairness” whose appeal would span the spectrum, after emerging from behind a “Veil of Ignorance.” Not everyone buys it, but we all talk about it. Michael Sandel does too, to a much bigger class than ours, albeit mostly virtual & MOOCy.
And now there’s a musical stage show. How many political philosophers can say that?!  Rawls@dawn

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Sarah’s key

September 21, 2013

We plugged the cute little $35 google appliance into the tv last night and streamed “Sarah’s Key.”

I give the Chromecaster two thumbs up and the film 1.5, sharing the late Roger Ebert’s reservations about the awkward cinematic juxtaposition of stories set in Nazi-occupied ’40s France and bobo-occupied present-day Paris. And yet, the juxtaposition is real and not a mere moviemaker’s contrivance. Same city and same world, but completely different too. It’s jarring and disorienting to try and compare then and now, but (as Santayana was just telling us about what happens when we ignore the past) we must.
Awkwardness aside, it was an affecting, compelling fact-based fiction nonetheless. I invite any students who may have tuned out or blotted out our class discussion of the problem of evil  last week to challenge themselves with it.

If you had been there, how do you know what you would have done?
We’re all a product of our history.

The Paris velodrome in 1942 was like a Katrina superdome nightmare but worse (though maybe not “a million times worse”). Humans, and not only the ones dressed in Nazi uniforms, inflicted horrible inexcusable evil on their fellow men, women, and children. The brutal fate of an innocent and trusting child, whose loving sister suffers intensely as well for a tragically short lifetime, for her own innocent forced role in the events of that horrible time, is emblematic. And chilling. She acted heroically, the results of her heroism were nightmarish. Another nightmare whose only end was in death. Another life incinerated. For what? A “greater good?” What a false and facile and tired old rhetorical gambit that is. 
Also salient in this story: how very many innocent and well-intended individuals get caught up in, and compromised by, the overt evil of others. You don’t have to intend evil, to do evil. The choices you try to make for good frequently recoil in suffering for oneself and one’s loved ones as much as for “strangers.” 
How can such horrors honestly be conceived as essential and necessary (though “mysterious”) elements of any rational scheme or universal plan executed by either an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent and loving intelligence, or by “Spinoza’s God?” How can anyone believe it?
Well, I don’t suppose this little post will make anyone believe they could possibly be entertained by “Sarah’s Key.” But I wouldn’t have thought that of “Sophie’s Choice,” either, hearing a short precis of its subject. But it’s on my short list of all-time favorites, both film and book. Happiness isn’t all.

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Riding my bike

September 20, 2013

Strange days on campus.

Just as class was dismissing at 2 on Wednesday in my “ruthlessly enforced standards” ROTC building classroom, one of those ominous automated phone “alert” messages arrived. A bomb threat had been reported for the building next door. Sure enough, we stepped out into a scene of rope-lined confusion. Heavy police presence, heavy uncertainty. Lots of nervous laughter and giggly chatter, which I guess is how many of us deal with the stress of living in a free and heavily-beweaponed, violence-besotted society.

Made my way around the pandemonium back to my building, and my next class. It was interrupted a short while later too, by another alert: this one advising us that the threatened building would be returning to “normal” at 4 pm.

Do we ever really return to normal, these days?

Well, I’d brought my bike to campus and was wondering if it would be safe to leave it overnight, in the sheltered stalls of another adjacent building. So I asked the guy in charge of campus rec’s bikeshare program what he thought.

His reply was delayed just long enough for the alert system to try and terrify us once more.

This time it was an armed robbery, in the close proximity of Peck Hall — where I was going to leave the bike. “Leave the area immediately,” alerted the alarming voice in my phone.

No self-respecting thief would ever raise a weapon to acquire my beat-up old Raleigh. But it’s still unsettling to realize that the quotidian space we swim so blithely through, whose security we typically take for granted day in and day out, is also claimed by violent would-be assailants. Or even just by immature kids who who find it amusing to disrupt the lives and educations of their peers.

So I needed to get away. Took my bike out to Stones River before class yesterday, had a great ride around the old battlefield followed by a pacifying creekside picnic. It was reassuring, and restorative. I recommend it. So does Uncle Albert.

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Russell’s conquest, Freud’s discontent

September 19, 2013

1930. A very good year for happiness?

It was the year Bertrand Russell published Conquest for Happiness, and Sigmund Freud Civilization and Its Discontents. We used Russell’s book two years ago in HAP 101, to great result I thought. I still think its main counsel is fundamentally sound:

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible , and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. 
The most universal and distinctive mark of happy men [is] zest. 

 Russell had been cadging from William James, for whom life becomes most “significant” when we locate ideals outside ourselves that elicit our greatest energies and ambitions. The solid meaning of life is a “marriage” of such ideals with “some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.”

Or, it’s John Dewey’s continuous human community.

With “zest” Russell makes his indebtedness to James nearly explicit.

The lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with… Let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in;—and his days pass by with zest. 

 “Zest” is one of James’s favorite words, charged with the vibrancy of experience not as a metaphysical category but the felt movement of life as literal inspiration, something to draw in and express through all the pores of one’s being. 

Zest seems to be one of Russell’s favorite words too, earning an entire chapter of its own. Remember the first time he mentioned it? You couldn’t miss the echo of James there. (I can’t, anyway.)

I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zestand appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends. 

 More zest from Russell:

What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life. 

Genuine zest is part of the natural make-up of human beings… Young children are interested in everything that they see and hear; the world is full of surprises to them, and they are perpetually engaged with ardour in the pursuit of knowledge, not, of course, of scholastic knowledge, but of the sort that consists in acquiring familiarity with the objects that attract their attention. 

Animals, even when adult, retain their zest provided they are in health. 

 Russell was a notorious advocate of “free love,” a serial philanderer whose passions knew no bounds. He sought zest in varied “affection”… and in family life. He saw no contradiction. Do we? Did his analyst? (What a strange job that would be: the great analytic philosopher’s analyst!)

Or did the analyst’s analyst’s analyst, Sigmund Freud?

Well, Freud was not a big one for zest. Who would be, in the debilitating throes of cancer? But he was dissuaded from the quest for happiness not only by bodily suffering but also by the world’s assaults and those of our fellows. “All hopes for  long-term happiness are therefore based on illusion.”

Don’t go to the couch, if you’re looking for happiness.

I vote Russell (if this is a contest) and for his happy cosmopolitan, who

feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not entirely separate from those who will come after him. 

That’s a happy thought indeed, and an inspiring one. But Russell wrote of it while himself stumbling through darkness, apparently. Give him credit for a bootstraps operation, even if it “took” only later. It still inspires some of us who’ve come after him.

Don’t panic. Don’t fear. Hope.

The younger Russell, who wrote “A Free Man’s Worship,” had considered happiness “unattainable, given the meaningless of human fates seen against the indifference of the cosmos.” But why should we expect “the cosmos” to care? We’re the cosmic carers, we, and whatever other intelligences might conceivably have come to consciousness out beyond the stars in our neighborhood. Our meaning is in ourselves, not in our stars.

There’s more in chapter VII about happiness “set points” and treadmills etc., and more on Sonha Lyubomirsky’s 40% solution (“up to 40% of happiness is within your power to change”). Good stuff.

And there’s more on gratitude, which we do need, “and the  advice that learning to experience it more fully can add to happiness seems valid for everyone.” Once again: if you’re alive, you’re lucky. Count your blessings, ingrate!

But I’m not grateful for the Simone Weil bit at the end of this chapter. Why shouldn’t a Christian reject Freud’s or Russell’s atheism as deluded? Well, because it’s pretty clearly not. It may be unwelcome or unavailing, but it’s based on a real dearth of evidence, not a chemerical one. Extraordinary claims still require extraordinary evidence. “A reality beyond this world, outside space and time” is plenty “disputable.” And dubitable.

But if it makes you happy to imagine such a trans-spatio-temporal world, and if your imagination does not overstep itself to compromise or scandalize others’ alternative visions, I guess I say: go for it.

And then I say: been there, done that. Please keep it to yourself.

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Augustine to Quine

September 18, 2013

It's AugustineBoethius, Santayana, Dewey, and Quine today in CoPhi.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one, behind the wheel with with Moses…
..and with “Free Willy.” But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.
(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed, or the sea-parter Moses; and neither I nor Salman Rushdie, the Dutch cartoonists, the anonymous Author, or anyone else commenting on religion in fictional media are blasphemers. We're all just observers exercising our “god-given” right of free speech, which of course extends no further than the end of a fist and the tip of a nose. We were celebrating precisely that, and academic freedom, when we lined up to take turns reading the Constitution yesterday.

They’re just a trio of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless provocation, and fun.  But if it makes us think, it’s useful.)
Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP 

And of course he believed in hell, raising the stakes for heaven and the judicious free will  he thought necessary to get there even higher. But if there's no such thing as free will, how can you do “whatever the hell you want”?  But, imagine there's no heaven or hell. What then? Some of us think that's when free will becomes most useful to members of a growing, responsible species.

Someone posted the complaint on our class message board that it's not clear what “evil” means, in the context of our Little History discussion of Augustine. But I think this is clear enough: “there is a great deal of suffering in the world,” some of it proximally caused by crazy, immoral/amoral, armed and dangerous humans behaving badly, much more of it caused by earthquakes, disease, and other “natural” causes. All of it, on the theistic hypothesis, is part and parcel of divinely-ordered nature.

Whether or not some suffering is ultimately beneficial, character-building, etc., and from whatever causes, “evil” means the suffering that seems gratuitously destructive of innocent lives. Some of us “can't blink the evil out of sight,” in William James's words, and thus can't go in for theistic (or other) schemes of “vicarious salvation.” We think it's the responsibility of humans to use their free will (or whatever you prefer to call ameliorative volitional action) to reduce the world's evil and suffering. Take a sad song and make it better.

Note the Manicahean strain in Augustine, and the idea that “evil comes from the body.” That's straight out of Plato. The world of Form and the world of perfect heavenly salvation thus seem to converge. If you don't think “body” is inherently evil, if in fact you think material existence is pretty cool (especially considering the alternative), this view is probably not for you. Nor if you can't make sense of Original Sin.

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s foreknowledge of everything, including the fact that Boethius himself (among too many others) would be unjustly imprisoned and tortured to death, in no way impaired his (Boethius’s) freedom or god's perfection. Consoled. Comforted. Calmed. Reconciled.

That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body (one thing, not two). But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.
And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

[Christians 2, Philosophers 0… Christians & MuslimsJandMoandPaulMystics, scholastics, Ferengi… faith & reason…]

George Santayana was a Spanish-American philosopher at Harvard, not quite a pragmatist but a good representative of the Euro-American strain of classic American philosophy. He gave us one of our most quoted unattributred quotes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Life of Reason

William James described Santayana's Platonic perfectionism as “the perfection of rottenness,” and Santayana himself as a man determined never to enjoy his eggs at breakfast. (Santayana countered that James seemed to think all eggs were good just “because the hen has laid them,” i.e., because they're real and not ideal.)

Eggs aside, Santayana has been called “a pessimist in an optimist's country.” Others called him “supercilious, vain and offensive.” Bertrand Russell apparently thought him “a prissy queen and a prig.” I'd just call him a masterful and elegant writer of sophisticated prose, a naturalist and materialist and a skeptical observer of life, and a delightful aphorist who said there's no cure for life and death, save to enjoy the interval. Also that it's better to love all the seasons in turn, rather than be exclusively and hopelessly in love only with Spring.

John Dewey (1859-1952) is one of my heroes. I love what he said about the continuous human community.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was not one of my heroes. But I enjoy recalling the time I hung out with him in the kitchen.

Postscript. A note from Carlin Romano: 

FYI, cover piece of the Chronicle Review next week will be a piece by me headlined (I think), “Dao Rising: The Liftoff of Chinese Philosophy in America.”

 So, is a sequel in the works? China(town) the Philosophical

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