Archive for November, 2013

Cyber-philosophy, Feuerbach, & 17 things

November 27, 2013

Good report presentation yesterday from Anna in CoPhi on Carlin Romano’s discussion of cyber-philosophy & -politics, and in HAP 101 from Solara (“15 Things Happy People Don’t Do“)  and Brenna on biology as destiny (or as Feuerbach said, Der Mensch ist, was er ißt.”

“Foodstuffs become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, the stuff of thought and attitudes. Human fare is the basis of human education and attitudes. If you want to improve the people give it, instead of homilies against sin, better food. Man is what he eats.”

And thinks, and posts? Cyber-philosophers don’t wait for peer review, and “don’t expect to get it right the first time. You keep pluggin‘ away.” Iterate, and reiterate, and so on and so on. You can always go back and rewrite. Meanwhile, get your beta-version demo out there, kinks and all. Many heads are  better than one. In this way, cyber-philosophy is CoPhilosophy. 

Somewhere in Solara’s litany I thought I’d heard mention of another habit of highly happy people: they make it a point to appreciate the aesthetic dimension of everyday experience, the delightful little moments most of us hurry past on our way to school and work. They stop and smell the roses, look at the sky, savor the stars and clouds.

I can’t find that, precisely, in those fifteen items. So make it number #16: happy people do not ignore the ubiquitous daily delights of so-called “ordinary” experience.

And, #17: happy people don’t forget to take a holiday and be grateful for it. Happy Thanksgiving!

via Blogger

Generosity, luck, & lunch

November 26, 2013

One of my favorite early moments in Richard Powers’ GenerosityAn Enhancement  comes when the preternaturally, transcendentally happy young Algerian woman Thassadit Amzwar (whose name means “liver”) disputes conservative icon Milton Friedman’s famous declaration that “there’s no free lunch.” He was talking market-based economics, her purview is wider:

“My father was an engineer. He always liked the English expression: There’s no free lunch. That’s crazy! There is only free lunch. We should all be nothing but clouds of frozen dust. This is what science says. All lunch is free. My father was a scientist, but he never understood this one simple scientific fact, poor man.”

In the existential economics of personal well-being, Thassa is saying, Richard Dawkins is right: we’re lucky to be here. Existence, even the hardest of lives, is a gift. A bonus. And it’s over in a flash. We should be happy. 

Thassa  “seems immune to anxiety. Her positive energy is amazing. She maintains a continuous state of flow.” She seems happy, really happy. But can you be too happy? Is she sick or weird, hyperthymic or hypomanic? Can we get whatever she’s got, in a pill or procedure? Should we want to?

We’re reading Powers because it strikes yours truly as raising some of the most profoundly meaningful questions we face: questions about the very possibility of meaningful human experience as we move forward into our increasingly engineered, digitized, hive-minded, televised, entertained future, questions about our own authorship of the meanings of our lives, questions about fact and fiction and (sci-) fiction becoming fact. Will our successors even know what we meant by “happiness,” let alone how to pursue it effectively?

May I suggest that anyone who’s having trouble with the relative density of this novel might consider giving a tandem listen to the excellent audio version available at…

I’ve been urging everyone to get started reading Generosity all semester, in anticipation of the time of reckoning to come near semester’s end when presumably you’d not want to have postpone the whole thing . Well, here we are. Looking forward to seeing everyone’s posted thoughts. 

For those who’ve not heeded the call, here (for what it’s worth) is a small CHEAT SHEET and (ironically) Oprah’s guide… my goodreads review… more reviews… What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness?” Or will it?

Carry the book (or audio recording) with you over Thanksgiving, it just might be your salvation. It might give you something more interesting and constructive to talk about than the Dallas Cowboys or your cousin’s reactionary/paranoid politics.
P.S. Thanks to our classmate Jon, aka the “Incoherent Rambler” & “Part-time Cynic,” for inviting me to share his air yesterday. Happy to do it!

via Blogger

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, Hitch & more

November 25, 2013

Big History

November 23, 2013

Just discovered David Christian’s Big History Project, via Great Courses & audible & TED.

I love the vision he holds for his grandson’s generation, that they may all come to know this as their story, our story. Everybody’s. It’s a story of our complexity and fragility, and of the power and potential of our collective learning.

What a difference it would make, at this “threshold moment,” if all our students arrived already knowing this! Or at least open to learning it. Maybe even the difference between history continuing and soaring, or crashing to a premature end.

Carl Sagan would be pleased. “Let me tell you a story…”

via Blogger

The Triumph of Experience

November 21, 2013
Great last words, JMH’s in Happiness Myth (which we close today in HAP 101): “there are other ways to see things.” Always, other ways. That’s history.

For the lifelong student of happiness, there are other books to read and write. Other historical manias and moments to ponder. Other forms of happiness to pursue. Other worries about how we may be getting it right or wrong. Other things towards which to turn one’s attention.

Hecht thus takes her place in the grand and growing tradition of American rut-busting iconoclasts, behind the likes of HDT

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves… The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

and WJ:

“Ever not quite!”—this seems to wring the very last panting word out of rationalistic philosophy’s mouth. It is fit to be pluralism’s heraldic device. There is no complete generalization, no total point of view, no all-pervasive unity, but everywhere some residual resistance to verbalization, formulation, discursification, some genius of reality that escapes from the pressure of the logical finger, that says “hands off,” and claims its privacy, and means to be left to its own life. In every moment of immediate experience is somewhat absolutely original and novel… Let my last word, then, speaking in the name of intellectual philosophy, be [this]: “There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given—Farewell!” –A Pluralist Mystic

There is no conclusion, no final word on how to be happy. On how to be. Experience triumphs not when it gets the last and final word, but when we open ourselves to the practical and personal wisdom of its next instructive deliverance. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, the mind must walk its path. Life is a highway.

In other contexts, experience triumphs when we take it seriously and don’t attempt to reduce it to something smaller and more compact. In medical contexts (which, as I said, I’m thinking hard about in anticipation of next semester’s Bioethics class and next month’s talk to the pre-med students who’ve invited me to speak to them about “Experience, Happiness, and Medical Materialism”) that means healers who treat entire persons, not just bundled symptoms and physio-mental malfunctions. 

Taking experience seriously in every context involves humility, compassion, receptivity, and openness.  It doesn’t claim to know more than can be known in advance,of one’s own or another’s experience of life. It doesn’t automatically “discredit states of mind for which we have antipathy.” It’s non-reductive.

Hecht’s parting practical advice: first, free yourself of the conviction that you already know exactly how to be happy. That’s the “myth of knowing.”
Then, in this less certain state, start sketching out your happiness lists. Start with writing things you actually do; then make additions to each list, noting what you might like to add to your gallery of daily-happiness-type pleasures…

Never sign off on those lists. Stay on your toes, keep your books open,
do some experiments… Talk to neighbors… Inspire a young person… When someone says that “they” have now got [happiness] figured out, you may say aloud or in your head, “No, they probably don’t.”

Once again, another of our authors insists, there are no deep universal secrets to share. But here are some intra-mundane happiness-inducing activities, possibly not yet rehearsed by us all, well worth considering:
…being loving to your spouse, nurturing your children, tending to your extended family, nurturing friendships, helping local strangers, helping strangers far away, caring for animals, engaging in fine art and the arts of living (poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, cooking, entertaining, gardening, decor), risking both being in the world and keeping apart, doing philosophy, learning the art of traveling and the art of staying home, planning for the future of humanity, and increasing the world’s knowledge.

After all that, can she and we still credibly complain that “people are shouting too many philosophies of health and happiness at us?” I think so. I don’t hear much shouting in this book.

So, sotto voce, just a couple more suggestions:
Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Oh, and don’t miss too many reunions. Take your own subjective, idiosyncratic experience seriously. Smile, like Mr. Prine, at stuff nobody else smiles at. It’s perfectly legal.

via Blogger

Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Fussell, & Hef

November 20, 2013

It’s French existentialism and American hedonism today in CoPhi: Sartre (& Lady Mary Warnock on Sartre), de beauvoir, Camus,  Fussell, and Hefner. Yup, that Hefner: the Playboy Philosopher. And what a perfect juxtaposition of opposites, Fussell and Warnock. (Give her a listen, she sounds straight from Central Casting.)

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals. “Paris needed a philosophy that would give to individuals a belief in themselves and their own powers,” says Lady W., and that’s what JPS and his cohort tried to give them. 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. 

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

Warnock seems to find some of Sartre’s terms and concepts puzzling: existence precedes essence, “whatever that means!” But I always thought this was one of Sartre’s clearer statements: if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it.” And we are it.

What did Sartre mean by “freedom”? Inquiring minds want to know how any of us can be really free, when we still have payments to make on the fridge. Well, that’s the crux of Sartre’s “Roads to Freedom.” Isn’t it, Mrs. P? -“We’ll ask him.”

“What was Jean-Paul like?”
-“He didn’t join in the fun much. Just sat there thinking…”

Some more extreme Gallic/Existential 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.
  • “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 perpetual season of political discontent, when the polls say all politicians and parties are uniformly scorned by the populace, 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.

Sisyphus, for such a grim figure, has been a ripe source of amusement for a lot of us.

Paul Fussell (rhymes with Russell) wrote Class: A Guide Through the American Status System to make fun of both the concept of social “class” and the hypocrisy or obtuseness of those who deny that there’s any such thing in the American democracy. Tongue lodged semi-firmly in cheek, he named nine classes-including one based on “the place you went to school”. 

The only escape from class in America, Fussell allowed, is via “category X.” It includes people like Joyce Carol Oates, Albert Einstein,  and Huck Finn, secure and dignified and unconcerned with class. It was a big joke, but it touched a big nerve. Clearly an area of sharp sensitivity, in our less than entirely secure and dignified USA.

And another such area is suggested by his swipe at “pathetic administrators of sad-sack Middle Western teachers’ colleges which have been transformed by name only into universities” and “third-rate colleges and ‘universities” whose curiosity begins and ends with “money, sports, ‘entertainment,’ or hobbies.” We’re not midwestern, in Murfreesboro, but we did begin as a teachers’ college 100+ years ago. Some of our True Blue ears should be ringing.

The Playboy Philosopher. Seriously? Sure. Not everyone reads his rag just for the pictures. “Life is too short to be living somebody else’s dream,” says the Bunny Emperor. And,

My religion and the spiritual side of my life come from a sense of connection to the humankind and nature on this planet and in the universe. I am in overwhelming awe of it all: It is so fantastic, so complex, so beyond comprehension. What does it all mean — if it has any meaning at all? But how can it all exist if it doesn’t have some kind of meaning? I think anyone who suggests that they have the answer is motivated by the need to invent answers, because we have no such answers.

So… let’s party? He’d fit right in at the Greek Bacchanal or Medieval Carnival. 

Carlin Romano seems to side with Hef’s sympathetic biographer: “Hef had, in regard to sex, consumerism, pop culture, and, yes, women’s rights, ‘profoundly altered American life and values.” Gloria Steinem was not a fun, but she was a bunny

And at 86, he married a 26-year old. I really don’t know what else to say, except: I wish I’d bought shares in Viagra.

via Blogger


November 19, 2013
It’s the “Celebration” chapter of Happiness Myth today in HAP 101, wherein ancient Greek bacchanalia and medieval carnival craziness are brought to bear on our strange modern ways. You’ll never look at the news (but do you look at the news?) the same way again. You may have more fun at your next wedding. You may feel less guilty for getting ecstatic when your team wins. You may even learn to love a parade.

JMH says we western individualists, we preservers of private life, are really built for public display. We’re pack-wolves, and festive public celebration is one of our “few pragmatic routes to happiness.”  

The specific forms taken by such festivity is often  at some level absurd, even when no inter-species suckling or naughty baked goods are involved; but it doesn’t cost very much, it can last a long while, it’s not inherently illegal (though it may be licentious); it feels free, and it’s a community-builder. It creates solidarity, elicits empathy, forges fellow-feeling. 

Take the little fete my old Grad School peers and I put on for our teacher awhile back, for instance. 

It dipped by turns into moments of silliness and solemnity, shook loose old memories and affections, and in general made us all happy to be there. Of course, it came up well short of anything you’d describe as revelry or carnival. But JMH’s point is that when we enact shared rituals of celebration in public we participate in an age-old human device for releasing joyful energies and making happy connections. We don’t have to “go crazy” on such occasions. It’s enough to just simply climb out of our personal chambers of self-reference for awhile and join the party. We’re a social species, and our most valued experiences are typically inter-personal.

It’s an odd inversion we’re on the long end of, in the “developed” post-modern world. “Historically, the average person expected to be a little miserable most of the time, and ecstatic on festival days.We now expect to be happy all the time, but never riotously so.” Is that about right? It would explain a lot.

“Thanksgiving with the family,” I confess, is something I dread every year this time. That’s not the way I should feel, if I felt as expansively toward the extended communal family and its celebratory occasions as Hecht implies I might. Does anyone else feel that way? Do you want to talk about it? 

The Dionysian abandon of Greek fest with its state of trance and revelation, its secret-sharing and “deep woman-weirdness,” is atypical nowadays. Our parties more often partake of the spirit of medieval carnival, says Hecht. (I think Hecht has, or when she wrote this had, a more interesting party life than I.)
In medieval Europe, partying was not about mad ecstasy. Instead, it was raucous, filthy, flirty, teasing, and soaked in ale. In this sense we are more like them than like the ancient Greeks.

That sounds like the Animal House-style frat party scene. I don’t go to those. The closest I come to representations of either form of frenzied communal festivity, most of the time, is on my daily circuit around “Musica.” Alan LeQuire’s sculpture is meant to evoke the spirit of music and creativity in general. Not sure it quite captures the Nashville sound and vibe, but the dancers do seem to be having a good time. They appear happy.  They appear to be mortal, too. Something we can all relate to, in our quest to “perceive the world in its laughing aspect.” Or smiling, at least.

I was smiling broadly just the other week, as the baseball season finally wound down and my team almost wound up on top. “Spectator sports work even better than religion in some ways,” not because of gambling or the wave or the spectacle in the stands but because… I don’t know, just because. Have I mentioned Annie Savoy’s Church of Baseball? Of course I have. I will again.
 I believe in the church of baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there’s 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there’s 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. …It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it. I’ve tried them all, I really have. And, the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.

No, it’s not for everyone. But sometimes the game really does “work in the same ways as historic festivals, occasioning expressions of sorrow and triumph.” That’s not peculiar to my game. But you must take your dopamine perks where you can. If you doubt the meaning-potential of spectator sport, watch Jimmy Fallon with his little season ticket-holding Fenway community in “Fever Pitch.”  

[And here I have to interrupt myself, at 6:17 a.m., to note the drop-dead gorgeous sky just outside my window. I glanced up and there it was. Almost missed it. Looks and feels like something to celebrate. If we’d arranged our workaday world more sensibly, such moments would occasion public celebration. We’d not just “appreciate” breathtaking cloud formations and colorful sky palettes, we’d spill out into the streets and party. Carpe vitam, again…. and another glance shows the sky resettling itself to “normal,” which also deserves more celebration than we give it.]

Of the other celebratory forms JMH considers, I’m sure we all relate better to some than others. I did go to a Star Trek “con” once, though not in costume or character and (though I do appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s original humanist impulse to honor an idealized future involving collective and cosmopolitan inter-species flourishing and the urge to “boldly go,” etc.) not entirely without a sense of irony. But I do like the franchise’s original innocence and confidence. Contemplation of a world in which humans have conquered ancient prejudice, greed, and short-term thinking can be intoxicating. Shared contemplation can amplify the feeling.

And yes, I do have a nutty “special kind of allegiance” to Monty Python. JMH is quite  right: immerse yourself in one of these worlds, and for the duration you can expect to feel “no shadowy worry of meaninglessness.” Isn’t that worth a bit of absurdity? Oompa Loompas are underrated as a source of repeatable Happy Days. Get enough of those and you can’t help having a Happy Life. But try not to get stuck on the Holo-deck.

“The big part of you has no words and it’s a wolf.” Take that out of context and you get the gist of this chapter: experience and life and richer than words can say, and human nature is wilder than we might want to admit. We can deplore this, or we can celebrate.

And one more reminder, as Halloween recedes: “you have a better chance of happiness if you do not let actors do all the dressing up.” We need, the rest of us, a Festivus.

JMH loves to make lists and check them off. She closes the chapter with a list of nine questions about your next party oppportunity. Will it let you drop decorum, dance, dramatize, disrobe, impersonate the other gender, act absurdly, eat a lot, get lost in the crowd? Is it your birthday? If you have just three yes answers, she says, go. “Get out there.” 

via Blogger

Russell, Ayer, and no nonsense

November 18, 2013

Oxbridge superstars Bertrand Russell (Cambridge) and A.J. Ayer (Oxford) are the classic 20th century British philosophers on tap in CoPhi today (Russell was actually born in the 1870s and made it to nearly the century mark). We’ll squeeze in another Cambridge don, Frank Ramsey, if time allows.

That’s a small philosophy pun, PB’s Ramsey expert Hugh Mellor is also an expert on time. And it’s in bad taste too, given that poor Ramsey’s un-Russellian time was tragically short: he lived only to age 26. RussellAyer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”)…. Russell @dawn… Logicomix]

Then, another passel of Americans from AtP, including a linguist-philosopher duo on the power of metaphor, a transplanted Anglo-Manhattanite neurologist, and a Unitarian guru. We Yanks win, don’t we? -if only by the numbers.  

So much has been said about Russell, and by him. 

There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. If it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn’t… it’s dishonesty and 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]

Clearly, “for Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity.” The concept of an Afterlife is, to coin a phrase, “nonsense.” We must save ourselves. (As Carl Sagan would later say, there’s no sign of help coming from anywhere “out there” to rescue us.)

Russell said family friend and “godfather” J.S. Mill provided a satisfactory answer to his own early childhood query, posed by so many of us: “What caused God?” If anything in the universe can exist without a cause, why can’t the universe itself?

Having settled the question of God to his own satisfaction, he turned full attention to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, to paradox, to set theory, and other conceptual conundra. If something is false when it’s true (“This sentence is false” etc.), then it’s back to the drawing board for the logicians. It’s not even a close shave. As for the extent of my own interest in set theory and its ilk, I think young Ramsey said it best: “Suppose a contradiction were to be found in the axioms of set theory. Do you seriously believe that a bridge would fall down?” No I do not.

“How can we talk meaningfully about non-existent things?” That’s never really hung me up, nor anyone who appreciates good literature. Either young Russell was not a big reader of fiction, or maybe he thought he had to justify his reading. I’m glad he cared about “the present king of France,” but I frankly could care less.

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, with his Verification Principle, loved to detect and discredit nonsense. Good for him, we’re choking on it. But he went too far. “Metaphysics” (not to mention “ethics” and “religion”) may have been a dirty word, for him, but there’s far more sense on earth (let alone in heaven, if a heaven there be) than was dreamt of in his Logical Positivism

Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own, in his old age. Interesting, in light of his youthful philosophy as exposited in Language, Truth, and Logic, “in every sense” (he admitted while still a relatively young man) “a young man’s book, “according to which unverifiable statements are meaningless nonsense. 

Old Ayer claimed his premature dalliance with death 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. [Or as Russell said: nothing externally imposed can be of any value.]

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

And with that last insight the former Wykeham Professor of Logic may at last have hit on a profound truth far beyond formal language and pedantic logic. Ayer’s greatest moment, for my money:

One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987… Ayer — small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ”Do you know who [the bleep] I am?” Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ”I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” ”And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,” Ayer answered politely. ”We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” nyt 

If George Lakoff and Mark Johnson had been at that party there might have been real fisticuffs. Probably not. But the metaphors would have been flying, for sure. 
For linguist Lakoff and Oregon philosopher Johnson, we live and reason by metaphors. “Philosophy in the flesh” depends on speaking and thinking in ways that mirror our condition as embodied reasoners. The logical categories we project onto our experience directly reflect the most basic facts about our ways of being. We have fronts and backs, so do our cars and tvs. No coincidence. They may overstate the Cartesian  element in traditional philosophizing a bit, but as William James said: “the earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.” Like a prizefighter on the comeback trail, like an underdog who beats the odds, like, well, like a good metaphor.
Mathematician Robert Kaplan makes a whole lot of nothing, and inverts philosophy’s great cosmolo- ontological question Why is there something rather than nothing? It gets confusing, but it’s still pretty amusing. Just like the encyclopedia entry on “nothingness” that goes on and on and on… And then there’s Sartre’s le neant. “Nothingness” made him sick. 
Lately this matter has been taken up by physicist Lawrence Krauss in A Universe From Nothing, and journalist Jim Holt in Why Does the World Exist? Thanks for nothing, y’all. (The universe exists to give philosophers something real to think about. Right?)
But seriously, there’s an important question lurking beneath all this superficial wordplay. Or else there’s important nonsense. If the vacuum of space is not nothing, in even its thinnest manifestations, can we not think the vacuum away and wonder what, if anything, that would leave behind?
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, deals with more tangible mysteries. Why do some people mistake wives for hats? Must have something to do with personhood. Sacks has an “abiding preference for the organic, the human, the humane.” Robin Williams may have been a good casting call, then, since humanity is nothing if not crazy and sometimes manic. 
Like Schopenhauer, he’s a musicophiliac and a fount of epigrammatic wisdom. Unlike Schopenhauer, he’s a nice man. He’d never push an old lady down the stairs, or inform a patient that the world is without point or purpose.

Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.

My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.

If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.

Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes. [Young Ayer, later visions notwithstanding, couldn’t see this.]

In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life. 

[Speak, Memory… “Seeing God” (How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies: Atlantic)… How Hallucinations Happen (npr)… TED ’09Desktop diary (scifri)… ]
Sacks has also inspired one of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, whose protagonist in The Echo Makers is based on him. But he’s no guru.
Anthony Storr (Feet of Clay, Solitude…) said gurus claim to be bringers of light, but more often suffer delusions of grandeur or divinity and propound “absurd theories about the universe.” That definition fails to exclude too many accredited academics, but I guess it’s clear that Jim Jones and David Koresh were at the far fringe end of the spectrum. Do we really want to include Jesus and Gandhi and Freud and Jung, with the likes of Gurdjieff (blaming the moon for evil?!) and the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (check your mind at the door)? Seems like much too broad a brush.
Robert Fulghum is no Davidian whacko, though he was born in Waco. He’s a Unitarian Universalist in Seattle, and he was full of occasionally witty (but usually pretty banal) wisdom. Kindergarten does teach important life-lessons, after all. “Play fair, don’t hit, share, say you’re sorry…”
We don’t need gurus, but Van Morrison was wrong about method- we need a better method in philosophy than the search for inarticulate mystical authority- and about teachers. We especially need good kindergarten teachers. Nothing absurd about that.

via Blogger

Happy bodies

November 14, 2013
Today in HAP 101 we’re wondering about the happiness people nowadays pursue, in frequent desperation, via the body. Specifically: diet, exercise, sex, and (to my personal consternation) spas. 

I don’t do “treatments” myself, unless you count the occasional chiropractic adjustment. I had a massage once, and I suppose it was pleasant and relaxing enough. But I would far rather have been walking. Had a pedicure once too. Hated it. And oh yeah, I’ve been acupunctured a couple of times. Ho hum. I didn’t really experience “bliss and relief,” on those occasions, nor any notable endorphin rush. And the times I’ve lingered in the sauna and steam room just became tedious. 

But I acknowledge, there’s a world of “treatment” I know nothing of. I look forward to hearing from those of you who’ve done the water cure, mud baths, yoga, high colonics, tai chi, ecstatic dance, shiatsu, bleeding, cupping (which I’ve seen but not enjoyed), purging, flushing, leeching… 

“Just being touched by attentive hands helps a lot of what ails many of us.” True. But happy healing hands are not necessarily magical or miraculous.

Now for something completely different: celestial bodies, and we’re all in the shot…

…just because it makes me happy. Did you wave at Saturn in July? Or were you face down on somebody’s treatment table? I think looking out (not down and in) is usually better therapy, at least for me. And going out, taking my body out for a stroll or a spin. But I know, that’s just me.

Jennifer Hecht is right and Descartes was wrong: you are not in your body, you are your body. So it really matters what you put into it, how much you work it and with what frequency, and with whom you allow it to mingle… (continued)

More on JMH on bodies and happiness in a bit, but I want to begin out-of-body.

This body once spent an instructive evening plopped in front of PBS, with important (if somewhat elusive) implications for our discussion of what it can mean to be an embodied intelligence in the cosmos. First Brian Greene explored the mysteries of “dark energy” and space-time. We’re not in our bodies, nor are we in a void or a vacuum. There’s a there there, and 70% of the dark stuff remains uncharted. Does it harbor the secret of life, the universe, and everything? At a minimum it harbors a challenge to our smug certainties  and reminds us that whatever bodies are and whatever space is, they’re cut from the same fabric. And, for all we know, we might be holograms. Oh, Doctor.

Then, NOVA tackled the legacy of Steve Jobs. (Brennan mentioned him at Happy Hour, maybe that’s why he’s on my mind again.) It ran an old clip of the young, bearded Jobs noting that most of what we call “life” was contrived by men and women mostly no smarter than you and me. For him that insight was an irresistible invitation to create something new under the sun, to make a contribution, to add his own intelligence and  ambition to the mix. That’s a much more profound secret than the oonception-production order of the iPad.

The documentary made clear that this remarkable man could be remarkably difficult, unreasonable, even cruel to associates. He was not a saint. But what a contribution he made, what “insanely crazy” transformative waves of happiness he created. His biggest secret: set goals every day, and work for them like there’s no tomorrow. One day you’ll be right.

The moral? An emphatic answer to PrufrockYes! Dare to disturb the universe. How should you presume? 
How can you not? Space and time can sometimes be made to bend to the will of a happy man or woman who sees things differently. They’re the ones who change the world.

Now, back to JMH. She’s another insanely crazy (in a good way) original thinker, philosopher, poet, historian, culture critic, wit… but I couldn’t disagree more with her stance on exercise. She notes but looks askance at a claim I can confirm at first hand, emphatically: “the effect of regular exercise can be as dramatic as the effect of taking antidepressant drugs.”

There’s a well-kept secret for you, thanks to the culture of pharmaceuticals and its cozy relationship with medical science. It works, it’s proven, it doesn’t require an expensive gym membership.

Yes, exercise strains the body. But, “damages the heart and increases anxiety” too, for most of us? She’ll need to be more specific to persuade me. My hour a day on the hoof (and just occasionally in the gym) has only strengthened my heart muscle, and given heart in all the good figurative ways too. It’s what holds anxiety at bay, lets me eat stress for lunch, allows me to function more or less like a semi-competent human being. 100-Up

But ok, that’s me. We’re all different, we’re all individuals. Got it. I still think she’s off-base.
Exercise can make some people feel good, and it makes some people blissfully happy. Yet, on a daily basis, many of us make ourselves happy by not exercising.

We all have our days, but those who make a habit of not exercising are experiencing a fool’s happiness. IMHO. But I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne too. Que sais-je?

As for sex, The Art of Massage is not really about happiness, with all its precise and clinical manual/digital instructions. Pleasure, maybe. Sometimes. But external views of sexuality– porn, we call that– aren’t usually sexy. In matters promiscuous and casual, I for one am glad the Woodstock generation grew up. And I would say that even if AIDS and STDs were entirely eliminated. But I wouldn’t want to be “heavy-handed” or impose my own “beliefs about what we ought to be doing.”

Maybe our relatively more buttoned-down, post-Woodstock era does “allow more room” for happy sex.  But maybe, too,  you do just have to try some insanely crazy things, if you really want to make a difference.

via Blogger

Peirce, James, Nietzsche, Freud, and a cast of thousands

November 13, 2013

No, not thousands, not today. It only feels that way. I’m not sure why the docket is suddenly so full, unless it’s because we’re getting near the end. 

It’s Peirce and James (and Vandy’s Robert Talisse on the pragmatists and truth)Nietzsche (and Aaron Ridley on Nietzsche on art & truth), and Sigmund Freud, and more philosophers/historians/linguists etc. from Carlin Romano. 

Through the years I’ve written repeatedly and delightedly on PeirceJames, and Nietzsche @dawn, especially WJ.

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.


Here’s what James actually said, about the squirrel and about pragmatism’s conception of truth:
…Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.
I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as THE PRAGMATIC METHOD. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right… Pragmatism, Lecture II


Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement,’ and what by the term ‘reality,’ when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with…

Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as…

…truth is ONE SPECIES OF GOOD, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS… 

Certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life’s practical struggles. If there be any life that it is really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really BETTER FOR US to believe in that idea, UNLESS, INDEED, BELIEF IN IT INCIDENTALLY CLASHED WITH OTHER GREATER VITAL BENEFITS.

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe’: and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?

Pragmatism says no… Pragmatism, Lec. VI

This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty’s invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.

Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.

Speaking of dead philosophers…

Our text 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.
 Freud [Freud and daydreaming… lucid dreams…BBC]

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

Some wonder what makes Freud a philosopher. In the spirit of Carlin Romano I wouldn’t worry about that. He philosophized (albeit reluctantly, says one biographer) about civilization, psychic health, happiness, religion, the material mind, conscience, consciousness, and the scope of philosophy itself.

Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations…

Like Kierkegaard, Freud endlessly mucked around in the morass of anxiety and depression and, like those other great explorers of the mind, was often accused of being of too depressing. Yet, when pressed to provide some positive vision of health, Freud more than once implied that what is fundamental to happiness is the ability to love and work; that is, to be able to invest in something other than yourself. G. Marino, “Freud asPhilosopher

“Frude had it all figured out.” Barney Fife

Also in the spirit of Carlin Romano, some philosophers who aren’t dead yet…

Historian Francis Fukuyama jumped the gun when he declared, in nearly-Hegelian tones, The End of History in 1989, as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell. Those were heady days, prompting many to pronounce the end-times: Bill McKibben’s End of  Nature, Daniel Bell’s End of Ideology, George Leonard’s End of Sex (which really would be the end, as the last Shaker might confirm). Reports of all these ends again invite Twainian drollery: they’re all greatly exaggerated. And as The Hitch said, Fukuyama’s thesis in particular was touted by neocons in an unseemly and unmerited spirit of self-congratulation. History continues.

But to his great credit, Fukuyama “brought light to an area (anywhere within a thousand miles of Hegel) thought by professional philosophers to produce Absolute Obscurity.”

Harvard political scientist Dennis Thompson “argued for as much public discussion as possible,” but also “recognized that the polis occasionally resembles a circus.” 

Choice, unsurprising example: the Tennessee senate’s silliness surrounding the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. They actually drafted ethics legislation including a provision that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me…” What would late-night television comics do, without our benighted legislators to kick around? Easy for them, they don’t get to live here.

Thompson also said, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, that the privacy of public officials “should receive less respect.” But their public malfeasance still gets the lion’s share of my disrespect.

George Fletcher revived Josiah Royce’s interest in the philosophy of loyalty. “America: love it or leave it” is a bad form of loyalty, as was the German people’s to Hitler and the motherland. But what about Camus’s’ mother-love? What about partisan political party loyalty in general? Loyalty to tradition, to church and country? What about loyalty to life itself? What about Carl Sagan’s great statement at the end of Cosmos? “Our loyalties are to the species and the planet… to the cosmos from which we spring?”

Many have questioned Noam Chomsky‘s loyalties. Nobody has questioned his impact, in linguistics or in radical politics. Carlin Romano questions his intellectual integrity and “goodwill,” his penchant for character assassination and “ad hominem attacks on those who disagreed with him.” Chomsky thinks himself “in possession of the Truth.” He might benefit from a little more pluralism, and a reading of Pragmatism.

via Blogger