Archive for January, 2014

Clinical ethics, Buddhism, Consolations

January 30, 2014

Was up way before dawn today, but instead of repairing promptly to the blogspot I had instead to deal with dogs. They usually live in their own space out back, in the “barn,” but with the mercury dipping so low we brought ’em in. So, lucky me, I got to take ’em out at 5 am and experience the thrill of polar vortex at first hand.

It didn’t kill me. In fact it inspired. What a magnificent planetarium show I’ve been missing. The stars! So amazing always, but even more boggling when you’ve just stumbled out of slumber and not quite come back to yourself. Why do we let ourselves sleep and blog obliviously through that, day after day, when we could be gazing and wondering at eternity? Another cost of comfort we forget to calculate.

But it did throw me off my routine. I’m sold on the life- and meaning-giving properties of habit, but a little deviation from time to time is good for the spirit. There’s a cosmic meaning-space out there you can’t really find any other time of day. Mustn’t be a stranger to it.

Today in Bioethics: clinical ethics issues like the status of fetal life, transplantation, regenerative medicine, mental health, end of life care, and much more. The binding thread is respect for the lives, autonomy and dignity of all humans, including (from the POV of caregivers) all patients. 

And that connects nicely with today’s A&P topic, Buddhism & Science. Owen Flanagan is interested in naturalizing Buddhism, making it safe and meaningful for atheists and humanists. There too, the thread that binds is one of respect for all sentient beings, compassion for their suffering, amelioration of their pain.

Pain and suffering give rise to Lamentations, which in turn elicit Consolations in our humanist Good Book. We’ll again go around our circle of friends and nominate favorite verses. I like those of the Stoics. Two jump out at me this morning, with the memory of loss fresh in mind. (Seneca is the source here, I think.)

“The remembrance of lost friends is a good; It honors them and consoles us, and keeps them with us in our hearts.” Consolations 4.16-17

“Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.” Consolations 4.39

And then, again, there is the deep cosmic consolation of the stars. We are starstuff, we are golden, we are in the garden already. We must tend it.


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Philosophy in America

January 29, 2014

In CoPhi today we’ll start getting acquainted with America the Philosophical. Carlin Romano (who came to MTSU last November to inaugurate our new Fall Lyceum) says everybody who thinks America is un– or a– or even anti-philosophical has just not dug deep and wide enough. Especially wide. As the poet said, we are vast and contain contradictory multitudes. We’re philosophical at the roots, where we’re not weedy.  But of course, he concedes, we’re also vain and superficial and unconscious all across the landscape too. We’re in the weeds with Jersey Shore and American Idol and Honey Boo-Boo et al. So it’s easy, too easy, to overlook all the philosophizing that’s all around us.




Carlin’s thesis will strike many, especially your entrenched working class of paid professional philosophers, as itself radical. He’s breaking their rules. defying what Richard Rorty called their “scholastic little definitions of philosophy.”  But as James says in the opening epigraph, “between us and the universe, there are no ‘rules of the game.'” America, Romano insists and tries to document in his book, “America in the early twenty-first century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world.” Wow. Can he back that up? We’ll see.

One point of immediate concern is the claim that in America there exists a “widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone.” Hmmm. That’s not exactly been my experience, confronting prejudice in the classroom. Wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “that’s just the way I was raised” or some variant thereof, in declining the invitation to think or even listen. And I don’t just get this from Braves and Sox fans.

As I said the other day,

If you believe X because dad or preacher or bible or teacher or tradition or a little voice told you so, that’s unphilosophical. If you believe it because you experienced something that you think supports it, and are prepared to discuss that experience and that belief, then we can reason amicably together. 

Carlin’s AtP introduction goes on to mention the source of one big embarrassment in the profession of philosophy in America, Professor Colin McGinn (formerly of the U. of Miami, also mentioned in the recent NYTimes philosophy blog The Stone as signifying a positive watershed moment for women in the field), and several of my own influences: John Rawls (“widely touted as the greatest American political philosopher”), Alain de Botton (a popularizer and twitter star), several popular philosophy mags, Harry Frankfurt (On Bullshit), philosophical novelists Iris Murdoch and Rebecca (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) Goldstein, Sophie’s World (a great read for Intro students, my colleague Bombardi says), Monty Python (“Socrates himself was permanently pissed…”), Matthew Lipman, Hannah Arendt, Mooney & Kirshenbaum (Unscientific America), Susan Jacoby (Age of American Unreason), NPR and BookTV (the new middlebrow standard-bearers), Chris Phillips (Socrates Cafe, Socrates in Love), Open Court and Blackwell publishers (The Simpsons, The Matrix, Facebook…& Philosophy… and don’t forget Jimmy Buffett), X-phi, cyber-phi, Richard Rorty, Oliver Sacks, Robert Fulghum, Cornel West, Obama-the-pragmatist, Isocrates… (Wait: Isocrates? Where’d the “I” come from?)

Notice how many of those names and works have emerged not from academia but from the wider world. That’s Romano’s point: philosophy in America’s way bigger than we (and the APA) thought. I’m not sure I’d include The Playboy Philosophy in that list, as Carlin does, but we’ll see.

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Perspectives in bioethics, meaning in nature

January 28, 2014

Bioethics today is about the ways our vision of issues and outcomes may be occluded, blurred, or otherwise compromised by our respective points of view or perspectives. Of course this is not unique to bioethics, all human comprehension is subject to bias by the attenuation of culture, gender, religion, ideology, experience, the absence of experience, greed, egoism, and on our list could go. It is in our nature to see what we’ve seen, to see what we want to see, to see through a glass darkly. Without corrected vision the people perish.

We’ve not yet reached Proverbs in our Humanist Bible, in A&P, but we’ve definitely already encountered plenty that speaks to our native tendency to frame experience incorrectly. Bioethical philosophers across the perspectival spectrum presume to prescribe corrective frames.

We should play with this metaphor. As a lifetime wearer of framed corrective lenses, I can attest to the temporary excitement of a new prescription, or even just a stylish new frame to house the old set of lenses. The trick is always to find frames that hold up through every season of wear, that don’t grow tiresome, and that justify the expense of change. (My wife returned from Costco yesterday reporting that the same frames she’d found at the Eye Doc’s were $100s cheaper.) Sometimes new lenses in the old frame suffice, sometimes you just need a new look.

So, some of the perspectives we’ll try to focus and reframe today: attitudes and assumptions around HIV/AIDS, especially as occluded by miseducation; violence as a public health issue; “feminist critiques” of contingently-drawn, historically-conditioned categories of masculinity and femininity, locked into patriarchal institutions and practices that discriminate against women; misogyny; marginalization; advocacy; embodiment; empowerment; relational autonomy; metaphysical dualism; care; furor therapeuticus; female genital mutilation; “Asian bioethics”;  Plato’s Euthyphro;  Abraham & Isaac;  Buddhism; and more.

In A&P we’re framing Owen Flanagan’s search for meaning in nature with Parables and Concord (from A.C. Grayling’s anonymous compilation of Humanist scripture).

Flanagan disputes the conventional philosophic wisdom, usually set at David Hume’s feet, that “normative questions cannot be addressed empirically.” No ought from is. Those of us who’ve wrestled with Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape won’t be surprised to learn or recall that Flanagan was Harris’s teacher. Both are attuned to the normative implications of facts about human nature and flourishing, cast hypothetically. If you want to be happy, for instance, it seems to be a relevant fact about your species that you’ll be more likely to succeed if you can avoid ill health. Thus, you ought to take care of yourself, have regular checkups, eat sensibly and exercise. Fact. No?

Flanagan’s out to naturalize everything and everyone, from Buddhism to Plato. He loves superscripted nouns (Space of Meaning/Early 21st century), lower-case adjectives (“platonic” is natural, “Platonic” is supernatural), and change as the only constant, with our aspirations pegged to our variable circumstances and povs. The pursuit of good, true, and beautiful attainments is natural for beings like ourselves, up from the sea, living out on terra firma our natural darwinian lives. (He forgot to lower-case that last one, or maybe his editor rebelled insistently on stylistic grounds.) Hence, our meaningful inquiries here and now.

Commenting on a recent student collaborator’s post, I asked what Harry Frankfurt would say about Biz Schools that instruct their charges always to speak with greater conviction than they feel or can support evidentiarily. (He’d call Bullshit on ’em, of course.) Here Flanagan asks what Harry would say about meaning. He’d say it rightly reflects what we care about. If we care about anything at all, we’re tracking meaning. Naturally. That’s the truth.

Thrasymachus, Hobbes, Nietzsche and other notorious deflators of human nature discredit our capacity to feel one another’s pleasure, pain, and aspiration. David Hume, again, would offer correction in the form of “fellow-feeling” and the “fitness” of our confreres to seek lives of meaning and value. “Humans are designed [by nature’s blind watchmaker] to care about more than individual fitness.” If we can’t all be Overman, Fred, just forget it. Thus spake the atheist-humanist Saint David of Edinburgh.

Also on the discussion agenda today: Dan Dennett’s skyhooks and cranes, the eudaimonic virtues, and the natural “afterlife.”

And more, including whatever Good Book verses anyone cares to meditate on. Myself, I’m still fixated on some earlier Parables: Ch.13, verse 3 notes that “the [Peripatetic] philosophers thought out their best ideas walking up and down.” Verse 14 “like(s) to think of the philosophers walking in their groves,” for “the body must be active as the mind learns.” Verse 18 implores us to “let the door to the library of the world open from the library of one’s books.” Amen.

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Who’s your favorite philosopher?

January 27, 2014

That’s the Philosophy Bites question we take up today in CoPhi. If you think it puts Descartes before the horse you can revisit What is Philosophy? first, as we did last year. (That was the first bad phil-pun I heard, first day of Grad School. Not the last. Blame it on Cogan.)

We don’t all agree on what philosophy is. Not even we “Americanists,” amongst ourselves. But we try to disagree agreeably. A little post-HAP 101 exchange between a pair of students last Fall threatened for a moment to become disagreeable (unlike the class itself, which was thrilling in its impassioned civility). Almost made ’em watch the Argument Clinic. “An argument isn’t just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes,” etc. etc.  But I don’t want to argue about that.


I don’t have a “favourite”… but my favorite (as I’ve already told my classes, on Day #1) is of

course William James.

Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different from what itis. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it werefamiliar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices. SPP

It’s no surprise that David Hume outpolls everyone on the podcast, given its Anglo-centric tilt, or that Mill and Locke pick up several votes. They’re all on my short list too, as is Bertrand Russell. (I notice that my Vandy friend Talisse is one of the handful of Americans here, and he, like Martha Nussbaum, picks Mill. Sandel picks Hegel.) Other big votegetters: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.


No surprise either that James, Dewey, Peirce, Santayana, Rawls, and other prominent Yanks don’t win wide favor across the pond.

I did hear a British philosopher praising James once, on the BBC’s excellent “In Our Time.” But generally they prefer William’s “younger, shallower, vainer” brother Henry, who lived most of his adult life in Sussex.

The British roots of American thought do run deep, and the branches of reciprocal influence spread wide. Stay tuned for info on our Study Aboard course, as it moves from drawing board to future reality.

Why do I find WJ so compelling? Hard to put my finger on a single reason, there are so many. I was first drawn to him through his marvelous personal letters. Then, his essays (“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” “What Makes a Life Significant”) and lectures-cum-books (Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe). His warm, charming, playful, disarming, sympathetic personality shone through all. He was so great at tossing off wit, profundity, and practical wisdom with seeming effortlessness and concision. A born tweeter. But his health, physical and emotional, was a lifelong challenge. He expended vast effort to become William James.

The thing James said that’s stuck with me longest and made the most lasting impression, I think, is the little piece of youthful advice he once wrote to a despondent friend. I’m not quite sure why, but it lifts my mood every time I think of it:

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Is this true? Maybe. Is it useful? Definitely.

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Moral Theories and the Really Hard Problem

January 23, 2014

Today in Bioethics we consider the application of various traditional ethical theories to the problems of life and health. And death of course, it should always be understood in this field. That’s our modest subject-matter: everything, pretty much, as it all relates to the maintenance and flourishing of the human organism, its conditions of continuance and growth, and its environs.

Slightly more precisely: we’ll distinguish consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethics as represented by (for example) Utilitarians, Kantians, and Aristotelians. We’ll look at libertarian and communitarian views. We’ll talk about J.S. Mill’s harm principle, and try to imagine what non-self-regarding harm might possibly accrue in the beckoning and foreboding future  to the potential subjects of new biotechnologies like cloning, germline modification, and all that goes under the catch-all umbrella of “enhancement.”

Finally, we’ll ponder the principles of autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice.

And, oh yeah, we’ll have our first group discussions. It’s a full plate.

Same for Atheism & Philosophy class. We’re still dipping for non-coercive insight and wisdom into Anthony Grayling’s Good Book (A Humanist Bible), as we’ll do every day. The point is to find compass-points of meaningful living that have been charted through centuries of non-theistic reflection on the natural human condition.

And today we bring a new voice into our conversation. Owen Flanagan’s Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World begins by noting that if consciousness is a tough nut to crack (he actually thinks it not so hard as it’s been cracked up to be), conscious meaning is tougher. Consciousness clearly exists, it “flows like a stream while I live.” But real meaning? A real and credible sense of purposiveness, flourishing, and fulfillment for finite creatures whose lives are as fleeting as fireflies, in the cosmic scale of things? Is it even possible, for those who’re convinced (as humanists are) that life is a naturally-terminal condition?

I’m going out on the limb with Flanagan to predict that we’ll answer affirmatively, but with eyes wide open to the reality of our transitory situation on earth. We’re here, life’s happening, and so far as we can possibly know, there’s nowhere else to go. Meaning has to be here and now, in the ambit of our winking existence, or it’s nowhere.

Fortunately “here” is a big place, light years wide and (by the fantastical reckoning of some contemporary cosmological speculators) even longer.  Maybe longer than the knowable universe, but still on the plane of nature. Lucky us, so much to explore as we grow up in the universe and open our eyes to its natural wonders!

I also want to endorse Flanagan’s recommendation that we be joyful explorers, and optimistic realists. “Life can be precious and funny. And one doesn’t have to embrace fantastical stories – unbecoming to historically mature beings- about our nature and prospects to make it so.” Can we get an Amen?

From Professor Dawkins we can, for sure. “To live at all is miracle enough.” Isn’t it?

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it? Unweaving the Rainbow

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Philosophy in the rafters

January 22, 2014

Deja vu, all over again. Almost a week later and it’s another opening day.

This one’s for my two Monday/Wednesday CoPhi sections. A quirk of the calendar, and Monday’s holiday, has us late out of the gate. But let the journey begin, the promised land (aka the month of May) awaits. Meanwhile there’s much fertile philosophical ground to tread.

I’m especially looking forward to my late class, up in the crow’s nest of the oldest building on our campus. “Kirksey Old Main” dates from 1911, our inaugural year. It used to house just about everything, classrooms and administrators alike. Never taught there before. A new venue is always fun.

And unlike the kids who commented on Foursquare (Finding then walking to the fourth floor suckkkkkssss”), I’ll enjoy the hike. Then I’ll check out the facilities.

“The 4th floor bathrooms have often been known to bend space and time, as well as teleport occupants to new dimensions.” 

This building cannot be said to exist in accordance with the known laws of space and time.”

I’m skeptical about that.

Every class in here is boring.”

That too.

In any event, our class will follow the ambiguous advice of James Watson: avoid boring people.

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Bioethics, & Atheist Genesis

January 21, 2014

It was a good MLK Day here, mid-60s and sunny and plenty of commemorative service in Dr. King’s memory. A good reminder of what makes life worth living. We need more heroes. He was only one of many who emerged from our Civil Rights era. Do read David Halberstam’s The Children, and someday tell your own children all about it. I feel fortunate to have living memories of that amazing and transformative time, proof that love and personal effort can conquer hate.

Now it’s time to get on with our own “creative tension,” in the classroom. Must keep moving forward. Must take our first daily quiz…

But we’re still getting to know one another, so we can also take time to catch up on our respective weekends. One of the highlights of mine was a trip to the furniture department, whence I tweeted: I may have found my perfect comfy chair. Already has my name on it.” Literally.

Another was “Her.” Any thoughts on that, anybody? From a bioethical, atheist/humanist, or any other perspective? It reminded me of , “You Are Not A Gadget” & , “Real People Personality” androids. too near?

Did you see Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bill Moyers? “God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread…If the only reason you say “dark matter is God” is because it’s a mystery, then get ready to have that undone.”


And, I’m excited about the release of Richard Powers‘ new novel Orfeo. Almost think we should read that in Bioethics, instead of Generosity. Or in addition. Some have great music in their DNA, some have it thrust upon them. Powers can help us pick up the tune of genomic enhancements we don’t yet know how to hear.

But that will be then, this is now. We begin with Alastair Campbell’s Bioethics: The Basics

“What is Bioethics?” It’s the rapidly-changing interdisciplinary activity of posing questions like:

Is health care just a business like any other, or should health care professionals have a higher standard of ethics? Should we invent a pill that enables people to live for hundreds of years? Have parents the right to use science to design the kind of babies they want? Does everybody have an equal right to health care, whatever it costs? Is abortion the same as killing babies? Should we create creatures that are partly animal and partly human? Is it OK to sell our body parts, such as one of our kidneys, like we buy and sell our material possessions, our cars or our mobile phones? Should the state force people to adopt healthy life styles? Should mercy killing be made legal? Does it matter if our current use of natural resources is likely to totally destroy the environment in a few years from now?

Are we just consumers of information and medication, entitled to enhance ourselves and degrade nature as we please? Are we bringers of light, extenders of life? Or are we the early wave of a tide that will make “the atlas go dark”? Tough, complicated questions, for a young discipline whose name literally just means “ethics of life.”
It’s good to bear the simplicity of that name in mind, as we tackle those tough questions. Old oaths and newer codes can help keep us honest: ‘The health of my patient must be my first consideration.’ 
The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study was anything but honest.

Nor is it honest or ethical to over-medicalize our lives, as Ivan Ilich warned in Medical Nemesis. Medical materialism,” William James called that.


Bioethics isn’t just about doctor-patient relationships anymore, nor does it automatically defer to the former’s presumptive expertise. The health care covenant is too consequential to contractualize.
And speaking of covenants, Atheism and Philosophy

In his Good Book, Anthony Grayling is not out to compel our belief. His appeal is to reason, critical reflection, and human nature as sufficient sources of goodness, wisdom, and meaning. Sapere aude, he (like Kant) might say. Dare to know, use your reason, have the courage to think. In the fleeting interval between birth and death, our lucky little escape from nothingness, the possibilities for enjoyment and insight are riper than we realize. Our greatest possibility is to grow, learn, evolve. Science can help in the endeavor.

And so can the instruction of the Book of Wisdom, chapter 16, verse 7: “exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold…”

After all (16/16): “Do you think that you can act the fool, and be a philosopher?”


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Another semester dawns

January 16, 2014

It’s Opening Day at our school, and for the 2014 renditions of “Bioethics” and “Atheism & Philosophy“!

Interesting convergence of courses. Both are concerned with how to live and die well, how to fill the interval between birth and death meaningfully, purposively, responsibly, freely, and cooperatively.

PHIL 3345 – Bioethics. This course explores ethical issues arising from the practice of medical therapeutics (conventional and “alternative”), from the development of new biomedical technologies, and more largely from reflections on life’s meaning and prospects. 

PHIL 3310 – Atheism and PhilosophyThis course examines various perspectives on atheism, understood as the belief that no transcendent creator deity exists, and that there are no supernatural causes of natural events. The course compares this belief with familiar alternatives (including theism, agnosticism, and humanism), considers the spiritual significance of atheism, and explores implications for ethics and religion.

Both are about living out the implications of how we choose to view our place in the wide world, and in the long winding human procession. They’re both also about negotiating a peaceable accord with peers who’ve made different choices.

And they’re about the future of life. Seems like the perfect day to recall William James’s “vital question.”

The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The center of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. Pragmatism

That’s a cryptic and pregnant opening salutation, I know. We’ll spend every bit of our months together seeking to clarify its meaning.

But first, introductions. Who are you, I’ll ask, & why are you here in Bioethics or A&P, at MTSU and in Tennessee, in the USA, on this rock, in this dark bright wondrous cosmos?

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Getting back to it

January 8, 2014

It was Back to School day here yesterday: back to High School for Younger Daughter, back to College for Older Daughter, back to prepping next week’s start of the new “Spring” semester for me.

Parting, always such sweet sorrow. Had to ask OD if she minded our dismantling her big Santa puzzle, the one she kept herself occupied with during the holidays that now occupies a big chunk of our library. “I suppose you have to… but it still sucks to see them go.” No kidding.

How heartwarming then to come home, after hours of solitary hard cold dusky driving, to a big box of books from Oxford!

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Especially love the one at the bottom of the stack, the Guide to Literary Britain & Ireland.

“Down House remains much as it was in Darwin’s lifetime…”

“In Portraits of Places (1883), Henry James writes that Oxford ‘typifies to an American the union of science and sense–of aspiration and awe… [&] lends sweetness to labour and dignity to leisure.'”

We’re still laboring, with sweet delighted anticipation, on that Study Abroad itinerary. But enough holiday leisure, for now. It’s time again for the dignity of work.

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