Archive for February, 2014

Bodies ascending

February 28, 2014

More solid group reports yesterday, and another whole week of them lies ahead in the run-up to Spring Break. Have to admit: it’s getting better! (BTW: What do you mean you don’t “get” the Beatles, William?)

Group 1 in Bioethics: you guys still need a name. How about The Stiffs? After your report topic, not your fluid presentation. Who knew the ethics of mortal disposition could be so engaging? Home Run! But I can’t believe none of you had ever heard of The Splendid Splinter. Now there’s a prime candidate for thawing and reassembly in the year 2525, if the national pastime is still alive.

Our culture does not do a great job of facing death squarely, hence our general uneasiness with this subject.  But medical professionals have to become comfortable with it, or at least familiar. I’m glad we spent some class time doing that. (And sorry I couldn’t resist some obvious puns before we finished, like “kicking a dead horse” etc.)


Some might think the subject of Faith was a dead horse, but Group 1 in A&P kicked it around with novelty and panache. 

They had much of the faith spectrum covered, from Jamey’s W.K. Clifford view (“it’s wrong to believe without evidence”) to Jon’s pragmatic pluralism to the implied faith in belief (whether secular or woo-ey) that many of them seemed to endorse. (Still not sure what to make of that “embarrassing” old Princeton engineering study of mind’s mysterious anomalies, Josh, but as Dean would say: it gives me pause.)

One perspective remained unaddressed, unless I missed it: John Dewey’s “common faith”-a faith in as-yet-unachieved human and humane ideals for which we may work, rather than in allegedly actual (but evidentially unsupported) supernatural realities we may merely ponder and worship.

“Men have gone on to build up vast intellectual schemes, philosophies, and theologies, to prove that ideals are not real as ideals but as antecedently existing actualities. They have failed to see that in converting moral realities into matters of intellectual assent they have evinced lack of moral faith. Faith that something should be in existence as far as lies in our power is changed into the intellectual belief that it is already in existence. When physical existence does not bear out the assertion, the physical is subtly changed into the metaphysical. In this way, moral faith has been inextricably tied up with intellectual beliefs about the supernatural.” John Dewey, A Common Faith

That’s one of the many versions of humanist faith, which rejects arbitrary faith, authority, and revelation, but affirms humanity and its aspirations for life. The gap between reality and the achievement of our dreams is a standing invitation to move onward into the fog.

I for one remain confident and hopeful (though uncertain) that we as a species will get to the promised land at the top of the stairs, though we cannot see them all from here. Yet.



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Full of possibilities

February 27, 2014

Strong reports yesterday from Team Why Not on Calvin & Hobbes, and the Philosoraptors on Epicureanism. “Have No Fear” might be the best summary takeaway from both, though of course fear can be your friend when it’s not purely groundless. I still contend that our heroes’ real-life namesakes (John & Thomas) were committed to philosophies shorn of real possibility: reductive materialism, authoritarianism, determinism, predestination. (John Calvin said if we’re damned we’re damned, and if not we’re just undeservedly lucky. Even innocent little newborns deserve whatever hellfire they may get?! Nothing sweet and cuddly there.)

But, whatever gets us out and exploring. The last C&H ran during the holiday season of Older Daughter’s birth, when she was just two months old. There was no room in my heart, in those magical days, for hellfire and damnation. Nor in Bill Watterson‘s either, I think. And look: he’s back!

Calvin and Hobbes

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The days are just packed

February 26, 2014

Busy day yesterday!
First an unexpectedly inspiring morning tour of Nashville’s Hillsboro High, delightedly abuzz with enthusiastic teachers and engaged students. Of course they wouldn’t showcase the snoozers, but all the same it was an impressive display of public education that seems to be working. The young science guy, a Vandy Ph.D., was spilling over with excitement for his vocation, his mission to hook kids on the magic of reality. 
Similarly energized was the multimedia & communicatrions specialist (“she used to work at CNN”) and the International Baccalaureate humanities instructor who teaches an interdisciplinary course called Theory of Knowledge (“we try to get students excited about the questions”). And we met a purpose-driven kid having fun working on stage design (“it’s what I want to do with my life”) for the upcoming production of Seussical. That was not my High School. Go Burros! 

Then, a brisk refocusing pre-class stroll around the grounds of the antebellum mansion at Oaklands (down the street from MTSU), setting up animated discussion in Bioethics and Atheism.

Then, heading straight out into rush hour after class in a slightly delusional attempt to arrive at Ensworth High School in time to catch Younger Daughter’s first softball action of the season, I rediscovered that Old Hickory Boulevard is no place to be during drive time. But I did eventually arrive in time to see my favorite pitcher/shortstop field her position before a gorgeous setting sun.
And then it was off again to Vandy for David Wood’s Berry Lecture on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Made me stronger. (Stay tuned for info on David’s upcoming Lyceum Lecture at MTSU on April 11.)

Made it home in time to say good night, and to begin anticipating today’s eagerly awaited CoPhi group presentations on Epicurus and Calvin & Hobbes.

No water balloons, but life is good.

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Venter’s meaning, Rosenberg’s nihilism

February 25, 2014

Craig Venter’s next chapters in Life at Light Speed, in Bioethics, continue to limn “the new field of the biochemistry of information” and the stellar history of the bacteriophage phi X 174, “the first to have its genome artificially copied and activated.” It’s a long way from the sewers of Paris.

There’s a lot of blow-by-blow technical stuff in these chapters about how Venter’s team went about their project of digitizing and synthesizing DNA. Much of it eludes me.

But I perked up and took notice when Arthur Caplan took the stage, and went to work with a team of bioethicists to produce the report eventually published in Science: “Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome.”

“The only reason for ethics to lag behind this line of research is if we choose to allow it to do so.” And we may. But isn’t it empowering to be be granted a choice, still?

“It is disturbing that current regulatory methods provide little if any oversight of these technologies.” Indeed.

Venter seems miffed that the report pondered “the impact of reductionist science on ‘the meaning and origin of life'” without first having defined “life.” But we know what life is, it’s what happens while you’re making other plans. Some of us worry that our ability to make any plans at all, ever again, is at risk with this research. He thinks the greater risk lies in not doing the research.

“How we understand our own selves, and how we work with our DNA software has implications that will affect everything from vaccine development, to new approaches to antibiotics, new sources of food, new sources of chemicals, even potentially new sources of energy. Food will be manufactured — it won’t be grown in fields — in 50 years… If we don’t do the experiments, if we don’t try and use this new knowledge to solve some of the problems of poverty, of hunger, of disease, it’s going to be a pretty nasty world in 50 years, with 4 billion people, three times more than when I was born. But I’m an optimist. I think we have at hand tools that humanity has never had before, the tools to truly have control over nature, and if we use those wisely — and we use them — the future could be pretty bright.” Venter on the meaning of lifeTEDMay ’10

In Alex Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality, in A&P, we’ll consider the “bad news” that nihilism is true and the “good news” that nihilists are nice as can be. They’re not moral relativists, they’re not moral skeptics, they’re not Karamazovian anarchists who think everything’s permitted. They just don’t think there are objectively, demonstrably “right” answers to life’s persistent questions. We can’t reasonably hope to find “the right answers,” just answers we like. And as always, we still can ply our powers of persuasion to our hearts’ content.

Nice. Who could ask for anything more? Well, you could ask…

In a Rortian mood, I’m frequently inclined to agree with Rosenberg about this. I just wouldn’t call it nihilism, which seems needlessly alarmist and provocative.

The problem with Rosenberg’s version of godless scientism, in this case, is not (as he suggests) that it saps life of meaning and leaves us nothing to roll out of bed for. The problem is that it does not seem to allow for the personal determination of meaning and purpose.

The real bugbear in the vicinity is humanism, not scientism. The way to tame it is not by insisting on science as exhaustively expressive of all meaning and purpose, but by simply noting that various humans have found various meanings and purposes gratifying, motivating, and fulfilling. Not nihil, not “nothing.”

“Scientism can’t avoid nihilism.” Sure it can: just emulate humanism’s plurality of meanings and purposes, don’t try to express everything in a scientific idiom. “Not everything worth expressing can or should be expressed scientifically.” Let a hundred or a thousand vocabularies bloom, and see how quickly the specter of nihilism vanishes.

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Machiavelli to Cavell

February 24, 2014

It’s MachiavelliHobbesDworkinPosnerDanto, 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 FortuneOne of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes & Villains. Room for one more?



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

hobbes-walking-stick

 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’sSymposium 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.”

Recently deceased 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 Allenet al. “I’ll be hanging in a classroom one day…” [Cavell at SAAP]

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. Maybe Day After Tomorrow.

I too can say, with Cavell: “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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Digital dawn, fake design, false expression

February 20, 2014

A new dawn awaits us in Bioethics today, specifically Craig Venter’s account of the “dawn of the digital age of biology.” O brave new world!

In A&P our next chapter from Alex Rosenberg begins with the man whose inflexible likeness I greeted just last weekend. He says Sir John’s Templeton Foundation always finds plenty of physicists to reward and remunerate for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension,” but that biologists are beyond all that.

I wonder why they’ve not honored Professor Dawkins, then? He’s a biologist. His Unweaving the Rainbow was the first book we ever read in this course, steeped as it is in the naturalistic and humanistic spirit.

Or exo-biologist Sagan? As Dawkins put it, appealing to the sense of wonder in science was his special forte.

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is finite.

From what he’s told us so far, Alex Rosenberg just doesn’t feel it. How sad for him, not to realize that spirit means breath, and breath means life.

And how sad for benighted biologists and any other contrarians laboring under the misapprehension that learning more of life’s detailed codes renders their product banal or, indeed, less than wondrous.

As for Rosenberg’s repeated claim that biology is devoid of explicit conscious purpose: that may be true of lower-order species still solely reliant upon instinct, but how can it possibly be true of a species intelligent enough to raise and ponder and write about the issue in the first place?

Unless epiphenomenalism is to be rehabilitated we must proceed on the assumption that our deliberations will generate purposes, and actions in their pointed pursuit that must influence the course of events in our life-world. Life per se may lack purpose, but intelligent life can’t leave home (or return) without it. That’s the real purpose-driven life.

Let’s revisit Flanagan. Scientism is the brash and overreaching doctrine that everything worth saying or expressing can be said or expressed in a scientific idiom… The simple and obvious point is that not everything worth expressing can or should be expressed scientifically. Scientism is descriptively false and normatively false.”

But let’s not leap to conclusions. Rosenberg’s not finished having his say, yet, and Saganism’s waiting in the wings.

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Anselm to Rawls

February 19, 2014

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 recently, 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 exactly 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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Life and science, Venter and Rosenberg

February 18, 2014

We begin new texts today in both Bioethics and A&P.

Craig Venter’s Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life begins with the simplest of questions, borrowed from Erwin Schrodinger: “What is life?”

(Does it occur to anyone else, at this point, to quote Douglas Adams’ Marvin (“the paranoid android”): Life! Don’t speak to me of life… Or, “This is the sort of thing you life forms enjoy, is it? I ask merely for information.”)

We’ll try to decide, in the weeks ahead, if their mutual answer that life is patterned information (with DNA as its “code-script” or software) is too simple. But nobody will ever accuse our author of humility. “When we announced our creation of the first synthetic cell, some had asked whether we were ‘playing God’… God was unnecessary for the creation of new life, [so] I suppose that we were.”

The job seemed available.

Alex Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions will strike many as similarly hubristic and even less humble. Another Blue Devil, Rosenberg differs from his colleague Flanagan in not only not disdaining scientism (the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”but actually embracing it, and finding the expressive (non-assertive) “stories” of non-scientists irrelevant and distracting. He bites that bullet and grins through it.

Those who’ve been ’round the block in my classes before will anticipate my early line on all this: Flanagan’s pragmatic pluralism expressed the right temper of receptivity to multiple stories as generating their own appropriate universes of discourse, reflecting a Jamesian “Hands Off” attitude that frowns on reductive attempts to say that anything (including knowledge) is “nothing but X.” Rosenberg’s scientism, by contrast, is obnoxiously self-congratulatory and unimaginative towards the meaningful possibilities of various ways of being human.

I wonder if Rosenberg’s read “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” or attempted to absorb its wisdom?

It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. 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.

Or Pragmatism?

There is no RINGING conclusion possible when we compare these types of thinking, with a view to telling which is the more absolutely true. Their naturalness, their intellectual economy, their fruitfulness for practice, all start up as distinct tests of their veracity, and as a result we get confused. Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows. 

But my early line is drawn in sand. I want to measure it against our later texts, and wonder if the kinder and gentler-sounding scientism of Sagan will in fact play out all that differently. I wonder, too, if Flanagan’s and James’s and my versions of pluralism “defend experience against philosophy” as diligently as they should, if they aim to differentiate themselves sharply from Rosenberg’s certitude.

As Richard Powers’ Thassadit Amswar said, knowingly, in Generosity: I’ll try not to decide more, yet, than God.

Or Darwin and Dawkins and Venter.

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Augustine to Quine

February 17, 2014

Happy Presidents’ Day. Just another day at the office for your working philosopher. 

But I must take a moment to appreciate the wonderful weekend getaway up the mountain my family arranged, to commemorate the hanging of yet another year on my line. 

Our rental was comfy as could be, it was a stone’s throw or two from Sewanee, Walker’s & Shelby’s storied teahouse, and (we discovered) the late Sir John Templeton‘s  incongruously located “library.” And who was he? An ardent proponent of reconciliation between faith and reason,

a Tennessee-born investor and philanthropist who amassed a fortune in global stocks and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to foster understanding in what he called “spiritual realities”…  [His] foundation awards the Templeton Prize, one of the world’s richest, and sponsors conferences and studies reflecting the founder’s passionate interest in “progress in religion” and “research or discoveries” on the nebulous borders of science and religion… [obit] 

After a photo-op with John’s statue I was met by a contrarian, at the door, who insisted the the Library was in fact a private residence. 



Speaking of faith and reason…

It’s AugustineBoethiusSantayanaDewey, 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…
jandmofw
..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?


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.

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Fling away the book

February 13, 2014

It’s exam day in Bioethics and A&P. My perennial best advice is still WJ’s:

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. Today just show up and do your best.

HTStudy.com HTStudy.orgHTReadABook

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