Archive for March, 2014

Kant, Bentham, Burke, PC

March 31, 2014

It’s finally, really Opening Day! I’ve been at work all weekend on my presentation for Friday’s “Baseball in Literature & Culture” conference, as reassuring a sign of spring as I could want. “Coming Home” is my theme, and after so many years this annual event – like the pastime it celebrates – has itself come to feel like home.

Today in CoPhi we’ll talk Immanuel Kant (and Adrian Moore on Kant’s metaphysics), Jeremy Bentham, Richard Bourke on ancestral conservative Edmund Burke, and Carlin Romano on (among other things) political correctness.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*

No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But  that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces, and my old Kant professor from grad school whose Brooklynese made his “how I met my wife” story downright vulgar. 

Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s  later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive, eventually, as he was un-flashy.

“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance with Rousseau and  Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.

“It’s as if we have innate spectacles through which we look at reality,” and knowledge is what we get from “reflecting on the nature of our own spectacles.” The spectacles give us categorical knowledge of space and time, causality, and all the other things Hume called mere habituation and custom, or constant conjunctions. “Science is concerned with how things appear to us through the spectacles,” continues Adrian Moore, and the result (nicely summarized by Nigel) is supposed to be the protection of the possibility of God, free will, the moral law, etc., “even though we can’t be absolutely sure about these things.”

But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.

Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to reason and think. [Kant/Hegel slides]


What I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is a good example.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I learned of them only recently. The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) Bentham also was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly “amusing” man.

Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’


So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings.

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…


Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.

And following up on Rousseau and Kant and the mystery of what it was about the former’s Emile that kept the latter off the streets– “Everybody who does Education has to read Emile cover-to-cover,” says this jet-lagged Yale lecturer– Rousseau’s Dog is instructive:

According to one anecdote, the fastidious Immanuel Kant, whose daily routine was so rigid and undeviating that people set their watches by him, became so absorbed in Émile that he bewildered his neighbors by forgetting to take his usual post-lunch constitutional… Rousseau understood, he thought, the paradox of autonomy—that freedom meant conformity to a rule. As he was writing his own masterpiece, the Critique of Pure Reason, he had a single portrait in his house—of Jean- Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau’s Dog


So while it was Hume whom he credited with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber,” it was the somber Swiss who really inspired his work and set his Copernican Revolution spinning.

But I still wonder what the dog thought. [Chains, laws, stars, push-pin & poetry]

Another thought on American brows from Carlin Romano, via UCal-Berkeley historian Lawrence Levine: we should not allow dubiously-absolute scales of value, with their “tired old binary symbols and metaphors” (like highbrow and lowbrow), to prevent us from philosophizing together. Let a hundred conversations bloom!

“We should look back to the critic Gilbert Seldes for the principles of the democratized, brow-removed culture we’ve become–at least outside of philosophy… Only in philosophy have the high/low binaries continued to rule, with professors typically belittling popular thinking…” 

Not guilty. I’m definitely not one of those hostile turf-guarding epistemological alpha male academics. I’m Open Court‘s biggest fan.

The PC debate of recent years was kinda silly, and widely misunderstood. Of course we should try to be “correct,” not because the keepers of culture will slap us for violating their proprieties but because correct, properly understood, means right. Or at least, honest.

What is political correctness, exactly? It’s become a slippery term, but the people’s encyclopedia has it pretty much right I think:

Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term that refers to language, ideas, or policies that address perceived or actual discrimination against or alienation of politically, socially or economically disadvantaged groups. The term usually implies that these social considerations are excessive or of a purely “political” nature. These groups most prominently include those defined by genderracereligionethnicitysexual orientation and disability.


Common sense is the ultimate correction here. “Not a common sense in which everyone [thinks] the same” (etc.) but one with no bulldozing. Here’s a wise and timely tweet from HDT, to the point:

“Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.”  

And I almost forgot: I’m not a big fan of Burke, with his defense of aristocracy and the 1% solution. But I do love the quote from him that most everybody knows: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  If he said it. I know he didn’t say one of the other things commonly and falsely attributed to him on the Internet:  “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” 

That last is actually a misquotation of Santayana. Or maybe Abe Lincoln. But don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.

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Misanthropy at the P.O.

March 29, 2014

To the surly #37205 Belle Meade postal employee who takes such perverse delight in making every transaction unpleasant for everyone, and in whose motionless queue I stood for 45 minutes before surrendering my spot to the 2d desperate applicant you turned away with unsympathetic coldness 35 minutes in advance of the posted cutoff:

I took my own passport business elsewhere (37132, en route to the Lyceum) and was met with friendly, efficient, human service. In and out in ten minutes, without residual sorrow or contempt for my species on account of the needlessly officious rudeness of its worst exemplars. Try to do better, sir.

The old bumper sticker is right, especially when it comes to the “civil servants” who are supposed to be working for (and not against) us.

Had to get that off my chest, on a Saturday morning that’s already seen the rainout of Younger Daughter’s two scheduled morning ballgames. We don’t need to create gratuitous clouds for ourselves, Mr. Postman. Lighten up.

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Venter in space, reality tough and tender

March 27, 2014

Covering classes for a colleague again today, with new students and topics. It’s like Opening Day, a blank slate, a fresh start, a rising sun. Everything I love about morning.

In the p.m. it’s back to Bioethics and A&P, in both of which we’ll be concluding the texts we’ve been immersed in. Fresh starts there too, next week.

Craig Venter concludes Life at the Speed of Light on a scifi note: biological teleportation, digits and robots to the stars, the (re-?)creation of Martian life, Venter in space:

In the past decade, since my own genome was sequenced, my software has been broadcast in the form of electromagnetic waves, carrying my genetic information far beyond Earth, as they ripple out into space. Borne upon those waves, my life now moves at the speed of light.

Along with all those old episodes of “Amos and Andy” and “Lost in Space,” et al. We need to get clear on how we as a species want and intend to apply the technologies about to be enabled by synthetic biology, lest we all get lost. Beam us up?

Reading and discussing Alex Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions has been a perverse pleasure for me. I find his Tough-minded brand of Scientistic Atheism too tough to swallow, but it’s tons of fun to wrestle with. This will be a good time to revisit Pragmatism and its classic Tough/Tender distinction.

The Tender-Minded

Rationalistic (going by ’principles’),
Intellectualistic,
Idealistic,
Optimistic,
Religious,
Free-willist,
Monistic,
Dogmatical.

The Tough-Minded

Empiricist (going by ’facts’),
Sensationalistic,
Materialistic,
Pessimistic,
Irreligious,
Fatalistic,
Pluralistic,
Sceptical.

James’s point was that we’re all astraddle the artificial line that dichotomizes these attitudes, but I think Rosenberg’s well beyond it. He says he’s no fatalist, but given everything he’s already and repeatedly told us about our incapacity even to think about the world (let alone act spontaneously and meaningfully upon it) that just sounds like marketing. Or a salvage operation.

But it’s too late for that now, he’s already convinced me he does not hanker for any pragmatically cherry-picked view that would leave room for each of us to have determined for ourselves “what we did in life” (and thus avoid a fated end). So we can either follow Rosenberg’s Rx, take a little Prozac pill and see if we feel better in the morning; or we can consider alternatives.

I’m still with WJ on this, who admits that a professional philosopher is expected to be more precise and committed to counter-intuition than the average “layman in philosophy.”

Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good, of course–give us lots of facts. Principles are good–give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it in one way, but as indubitably is it many, if you look at it in another. It is both one and many–let us adopt a sort of pluralistic monism. Everything of course is necessarily determined, and yet of course our wills are free: a sort of free-will determinism is the true philosophy.

The thing about James is, he never allowed himself the luxury of philosophizing strictly as a professional philosopher, he always remembered that he was also a man. He always imagined trying to explain his positions to non-professionals at, say, the laundromat. He knew humans will never hesitate to “mix incompatibles” when a mix is what their experience and their hopes require.

That’s why he said his lifelong mission was to “defend experience against philosophy.”

In today’s final reading Rosenberg declares even Richard Dawkins too soft and squishy on reality. In the “Tough” column, he would add Meaningful (or Meaning-seeking). Rosenberg says a Tough-minded Atheist has no use for that.

Richard Dawkins has succumbed to the delusion that a substitute for religion is required and available from science. People ask Dawkins, “Why do you bother getting up in the morning if the meaning of life boils down to such a cruel pitiless fact, that we exist merely to help replicate a string of molecules. His answer is that “science is one of the supreme things that makes life worth living.”

 Well, that’s part of the answer. Another big  part is our curiosity and creativity about life and reality, the very source and spirit of our interest in science in the first place. We desire to know, to find out, to spread out in the galaxy. And that brings us to our next read, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, a kinder, gentler, more meaningful scientism. If Dawkins can’t sell you on “the beauty of science” or tell you a convincing human story, I’ll bet Carl Sagan can.

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Hume, Smith, Rousseau, Durant, & American brows

March 26, 2014

In CoPhi today:  David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (LH), Millican on Hume, Phillipson on Hume’s pal Adam Smith,  Melissa Lane on Rousseau, (PB), and Carlin Romano on “brows” high, middle, and low. 

Also note: not assigned but highly recommended, Alison Gopnik’s recent PB discussion of the Hume-Buddhist connection, and Vandy prof Bob Talisse on why & how to argue constructively.

David Hume (follow his little finger) agreed with Diderot that good and honest people don’t need threats to make them so, they just need to be well nurtured and postively reinforced in the customs and habits of a good and honest society. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place… JMH


Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. [Hume at 300… in 3 minutes… Belief in miracles subverts understanding]

On the question of Design, intelligent or otherwise, Hume would definitely join in  the February celebration of Darwin Day. Scientific thinking is a natural human instinct, for him, for “clever animals” like ourselves, providing “the only basis we have for learning from experience.” (Millican) [Hume vs. design (PB)… Hume on religion (SEP)]

Open your eyes,” Richard Dawkins likes to say. They really are an incredible evolutionary design. Not “perfect” or previsioned, but naturally astounding.



An early episode of the new Cosmos takes a good look at the eye as well.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an emotional thinker with a romantically-inflated opinion of human nature and the “noble savages” who would have embodied it in a hypothetical state of nature.


What’s most interesting to me about Rousseau is that his Emile so arrested the attention of Immanuel Kant that he allowed it to disrupt his daily walking routine “for a few days.” Nothing short of seriously-incapacitating illness would do that to me. Apparently Kant was typically the same way, except for just that once.

Kant could get very upset if well-meaning acquaintances disturbed his routines. Accepting on one occasion an invitation to an outing into the country, Kant got very nervous when he realised that he would be home later than his usual bedtime, and when he was finally delivered to his doorstep just a few minutes after ten, he was shaken with worry and disgruntlement, making it at once one of his principles never to go on such a tour again.


So what’s in Emile that could so dis-comport a creature of such deeply ingrained habit? A generally-favorable evaluation of human nature, and a prescription for education reflective of that evaluation. Kant thought highly enough of Rousseau’s point of view to hold us all to a high standard of reasoned conduct. We should always treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means to our own ends. We have a duty to regard one another with mutual respect.

The character of Emile begins learning important moral lessons from his infancy, through childhood, and into early adulthood. His education relies on the tutor’s constant supervision. The tutor must even manipulate the environment in order to teach sometimes difficult moral lessons about humility, chastity, and honesty. IEP


Yes, fine. But what precisely in Emile kept Kant off the streets, until he was finished with it?

Don’t know yet. But I love a good mystery. I’ll look into it. Could have something to do with other characters in the story. “Rousseau discusses in great detail how the young pupil is to be brought up to regard women and sexuality.” Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Or not. Rousseau’s observations regarding women sound pretty sexist and ill-informed, nothing Kant (as a  relatively un-Enlightenend male) wouldn’t already have shared.

Maybe it’s what Emile says about freedom that so arrested Kant? “The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature.”

Or religion? “It is categorically opposed to orthodox Christian views, specifically the claim that Christianity is the one true religion.” Maybe.

The Vicar claims that the correct view of the universe is to see oneself not at the center of things, but rather on the circumference, with all people realizing that we have a common center. This same notion is expressed in Rousseau’s political theory, particularly in the concept of the general will.


That’s very promising. Kant’s Copernican Revolution etc.

I wonder if the mystery of Kant’s lost walks could be related, too, to another of fellow-pedestrian Rousseau’s books, Reveries of the Solitary Walker?

The work is divided into ten “walks” in which Rousseau reflects on his life, what he sees as his contribution to the public good, and how he and his work have been misunderstood. It is interesting that Rousseau returns to nature, which he had always praised throughout his career… The Reveries, like many of Rousseau’s other works, is part story and part philosophical treatise. The reader sees in it, not only philosophy, but also the reflections of the philosopher himself.


That may not be a clue but it’s a definite inspiration for my own Philosophy Walks project, still seeking its legs.

Melissa Lane, like me, is very interested in Rousseau’s walking. 

BTW: we know Rousseau had a dog. Did Kant? If so, wasn’t he neglecting his duty to walk her?


And like Rousseau and me, Romano is concerned that aspects of American Brow culture, especially the culture of sales and advertizing, are obstacles to happiness and wisdom. He cites an astonishing figure: the average American takes in 37,822 TV ads per year. Not me, I was hitting the mute button before there were remotes (thanks to Radio Shack). Wired it through the back of the set. Drove family & friends nuts. Became a philosopher.

The first philosophy book I think I ever read cover-to-cover was The Story of Philosophy by Will and Ariel Durant. I didn’t know it was considered middlebrow at best, libelous at its worst. That was the view of one of my later Mizzou profs. It’s not mine. I think it was a darned good invitation to philosophy.

We want to know that the little things are little, and the big things big, before it is too late ; we want to see things now as they will seem forever — “in the light of eternity.” We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death.

Then he quoted Thoreau (“…simplicity, independence…”) and I was hooked, happily “failing to keep pace” with most of my companions ever since.

Didn’t know then that I’d eventually come to share Will Durant’s prescient view that “epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy.”  Did he poison my well? Again to cite the eloquent old Dominican baseball skeptic Joacquin Andujar’s “favorite word in English”: Youneverknow. But my aversion to a certain sort of nitpicking epistemologizing was confirmed when later I discovered William James’s delightful contempt for “the baldheaded young PhDs boring each other with erkentnisstheorie” at conferences.

Also didn’t know Durant was a cradle-robber. But I have nothing against his “entertaining and popular” style. Does that make me a middlebrow? Even if it doesn’t, some of my epistemologist friends will still say my penchant for Open Court’s (etc.) pop philosophy does. Middlebrow, “vulgar,” ephemeral, superficial… but also “relevant” and in some ways “whole.” Should I apologize? Would Mill? Should we, in a pluralistic would-be democracy’s marketplace of ideas? I say no.

I do agree with Romano, that it’s a good idea to try and “impose quality control on a university culture with low standards of clarity, originality and style.” And, to recognize that “Brow labels, like art itself, shift over time.”

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Life by design, and history

March 25, 2014

We happen into an interesting though unintended convergence of pop culture reference today in Bioethics and A&P: Isaac Asimov, the late great scifi writer. Neil Tyson and Carl Sagan have been credited with making science cool in our time, but Asimov paved the way for them both.

In “Life by Design” Venter acknowledges Asimov’s prescience.

One point that has struck me forcefully over the years is that few of the questions raised by synthetic genomics are truly new. One of the most famous attempts to grapple with issues raised by synthetic life forms can be found in [Asimov’s] Three Laws of Robotics [wiki]… One can apply these principles equally to our efforts to alter the basic machinery of life by substituting “synthetic life form” for “robot.”

Interesting report project possibilities here: extrapolate the substitution and see if it renders synthetic biology any less transgressive or reckless in the minds of its critics. Will anything do that?

Check out the sidewhiskered Asimov in 1989, addressing the American Humanist Association on “how humanity can save the earth for humans.” This seems also to be Venter’s own humble aspiration, his “big picture goal”:

It’s natural to groan and roll your eyes when somebody says they want to save the world, and Venter’s probably earned his share of groans and eye rolls. But if the question is what his goals truly are, I think that’s it. I don’t think it’s any secret that he also wants total freedom, tons of money, a fancy house, expensive cars and boats and infinite toys. But I think when he wakes up in the morning, he actually believes he’s going to change the world. Which at this point, regrettably, is synonymous with saving it. So for example, he wants to replace agribusiness with food-generating algae, and he wants to design organisms that eat the pollution out of smokestacks, and he’d like to replace large sectors of industrial manufacturing with low-impact biomachinery. That doesn’t mean he’s not seeking fame and glory and piles of cash. He’s doing that too. “Behind the Story,” NYT 6.4.12

Oh, and he wants to live long and prosper too. His latest “new company, Human Longevity, will focus on figuring out how people can live longer and healthier lives [and] will build what Dr. Venter says will be the largest human DNA sequencing operation in the world, capable of processing 40,000 human genomes a year…” – A Genetic Entrepreneur Sets His Sights on Aging and Death, nyt

The issue in A&P is whether history is bunk. Alex Rosenberg is the latest model (hardly a model philosopher, if you ask me) to roll off the human assembly line and say so in print, in the spirit of Henry Ford and in defiance of Asimov’s “psychohistorianFoundation dreams.

I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today. – Henry Ford, 1916

Ford also said an idealist is someone who helps others prosper, and that his customers could get their Model Ts in any color they liked, so long as it was black. Is that funny, or just ominous, if it turns out to be the template for life by design? I find myself again recurring to Bill McKibben’s concerns, expressed in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. (There’s lots in that book about robotics too, including an ethically unsettling thought from Asimov on “the greatest social use of robots.”)

Do we really want predictability in history, in either our collective history or in our personal biographies? Is that why we study, or even just notice, history? Is ultimate unpredictability history’s Achilles Heel, or its greatest asset?

I don’t know much about history, but I do know I like what I read at @brainpicker the other day on this topic, and about how exposure to history (past, present, and future) deepens our empathy for other lives. It draws out the better angels of our nature, it strengthens our Keatsian “negative capability.”

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with “being good.” But experiential empathy should really be regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next vacation at an exotic resort or visiting standard tourist sites. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives — and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, “Where can I go next?,” the question on our lips should be, “Whose shoes can I stand in next?”

There’s no bunk in that aspiration, just lots of humanity. As history continues, we’re probably going to need that.

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Berkeley, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rorty redux

March 24, 2014
Today in CoPhi we take another pass at John Locke, this time contrasting him with Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) odd esse est percipi thesis; John Campbell on Berkeley’s PuzzleVoltaire vs. Leibniz; and one more look at Richard Rorty.

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson


The conventional judgment of philosophers, in relating this funny little story, is that Johnson missed Berkeley’s point. Mine is that Berkeley missed the point of Johnson’s demonstration: nobody really lives exclusively in his own (figurative or literal, res cogitans or res extensa) head. Not even distracted bishops or philosophers.

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.

There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.


Well, the idea of him is now hung again anyway. If a portrait hangs in a gallery but nobody looks at it, does it make an impression? Its subject surely did, we always talk about him between Locke and Hume. Why is that? He was an empiricist only nominally, not temperamentally and (despite the extremity of his view) definitely not radicallyRadical Empiricists [wiki]who think like William James perceive the relations in experience that connect us and our sometimes-whacky ideas to the real “external” world.
Campbell (who, btw, speaks in the most charming Scots brogue) nonetheless describes Berkeley’s puzzle and its solution as radical, tearing at the roots of everyday common sense. “If all I’ve got to go on is this wall of sensation, how can I even frame the idea of something beyond that?” His solution is no solution: “You can’t, it’s just an illusion… All we have are our ideas.” That’s a really bad idea, Bishop B.
Campbell himself makes more sense. There are “different levels in the description of reality,” and everything we experience, from colors and smells and tastes (the so-called secondary qualities of experience) to quantum phenomena to observer-independent quantitative/”objective” features of the world, is “out there,” i.e., real… but appropriately described in different terms. James again clarifies:

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.

That last bit is purely rhetorical, James didn’t think heaven has a dog in this hunt. It’s up to us to decide when to speak the language of common sense and when to defer to some corrective scientific or critical or other specialized vocabulary. Levels. And brains, “it’s very important that we have brains. But their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk.”
The latest In Our Time is all about Berkeley.

Calvin, btw, seems to have taken the Bishop seriously.

Voltaire was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide


“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate“:
Leibniz’s feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind… 

And James’s comments continue, in a similarly scathing vein. But if you like Leibniz’s defense of the ways of god, maybe you’d love his monadology. Maybe not. But if one substance is good, how good is an infinity of them?

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” [Voltaire @dawnLeibniz@dawn… Spinoza Leibniz slides]

What’s more to say about Rorty,”unquestionably the best philosophical writer since Bertrand Russell… the Rhett Butler of professional American philosophy”? 

For one thing, his impact in advancing Applied Ethics. (“Applied” means practical, relevant, and useful. Our Lyceum is Applied.) “Applied ethicists tended to follow a Rortyan method in their practice– not handing down theories or edicts, but talking to their new colleagues, questioning hidebound assumptions.” I’d like to think I’d have done that anyway, with or without Rorty, in my approach to Bioethics and Environmental Ethics. But I appreciate the moral support.

I was also a big fan of his Achieving Our Country, with its “secular, reformist, anti-epistemological” message.

And I still applaud his observation that old noble-sounding vacuities like “the intrinsic nature of reality” and “correspondence to reality” really don’t help us discern things like the intrinsic nature of reality or correspondence between it and our ideas.

I also agree that our best guide to “objectivity” is usually intersubjectivity, and prefer “What use is it?” to “Is it real?” I like his lower case truths. I like his naturalism, holism, and non-reductivism. He was right: we can’t enjoy a View from Nowhere. He was right again: a good story tops a good theory. “Let me tell you a story…”

But, give up the appearance-reality distinction? No, not yet. Drop the goal of getting closer to truth? No. Define philosophical progress in terms of our ability to assimilate new theories to old ideas? No. But more imagination in philosophy? YES! 

In Rorty’s view, our traditional seeking of “authoritative guidance”—from God, 
Reason, “the fierce father,” “a nonhuman authority to whom we owe some sort of 
respect”—debilitated us as free agents.

But relying entirely on oneself for authoritative guidance is also  debilitating. Nietzsche, for instance, “served the hormonal imperatives of philosophical teen males” — (have you seen Little Miss Sunshine?) — as efficiently as Bart Simpson does those of normal adolescents.”

So, what is Rorty finally saying? Pretty much what Voltaire said: let us cultivate our garden.

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Life out of life

March 20, 2014

In Bioethics today we get Craig Venter’s continued blow-by-blow recounting of how he and his team finally succeeded in synthesizing the M.mycoides genome, and he takes us (a bit less thrillingly than Neil Tyson took us inside that polar bear the other night on Cosmos) inside a synthetic cell. But it’s still a Fantastic Voyage (speaking of nano-medicine, as some of us were briefly in CoPhi yesterday).

 In A&P we’re pondering purpose and self hood, both of which Alex Rosenberg’s slash-and-burn version of scientism would eliminate. 

In the Good Book we’re still stuck in history, whose lessons Rosenberg wants to debunk. In the next chapter he says “the study of the past hasn’t told us much about the future.” It can enrich the present and prepare us to meet another day, but I’ll confess I’ve read more dramatic humanist histories. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt, for instance. And maybe the new Age of Atheists.

Craig Venter’s rehearsal of the steps that led to his synthetic biology breakthrough have been “less dramatic” too, certainly less dramatic than the genius strokes of insight we associate with Newton and Curie and Einstein. (Venter also credits the genius of Michelangelo.)

I’ve been balking at descriptions of the lightning creativity and intuitive “darting to an aim” (Emerson) represented by the genius figures of history strictly in terms of information processing. But maybe I’m under-valuing the concept of information. Some of the things molecules do, as Cosmos put it, are marvelous and astounding. 

That is, there’s (mere) information, and then there’s information! Intelligence, self-awareness, curiosity and creativity may just be emergent qualities of sophisticated information processing systems after all. If so, maybe information can become wisdom. But is that equivalent to saying that “physics fixes all the facts”? I still don’t see that. I’ll try to keep an open mind. Persuade me, class.

Well, Venter (despite the “playing god” canard) professes humility. He sees himself as working the “less dramatic kind of creativity that drives science.” And he’s right, it’s the unforeseen consequences of workaday research that have been most surprising. Studying restriction enzymes in a bacterium can “lay the foundation of genetic engineering.” Collecting jellyfish can unlock the secrets of brain development and cancer. Maybe Venter’s rudimentary work in genomic synthesis will save the world. In all humility. Fingers crossed.

Whatever it all leads to, we can appreciate the champagne moment when Venter’s colleague texted at 4 a.m, “We have a blue transplant.” The “first life form with a completely synthetic genome.” The “first living self-replicating species to have a computer as a parent.” 

Break out the bubbly and the poetry. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” (Joyce)

Less poetically, “See things not [only] as they are but as they might be.” (Oppenheimer)

And,

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” (Feynman)

That’s all great, but I’m still trying to square it with scientism’s rear-view notion that creativity and the future are out-of-bounds. “Farewell to the Purpose-Driven Life,” “Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously”? It’s hard to be humble when you think you’re holding the secret of life in your petri dish.

Fortunately there’s the porpoise-driven life to fall back on. The Spring Break-ing half of my family is trekking to the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota today. They won’t take things there too seriously, but I’m confident they will enjoy themselves. 




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Spinoza, Locke, Reid, Rorty

March 19, 2014
Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of the passions), John Locke (not the “Lost” one) and Thomas Reid on personal identity (and John Dunn on Locke’s concept of toleration) & more Romano on Rorty.

First an observation: yesterday I found it a bit surprising that so many students seemed perfectly sanguine to think of themselves as the reductionistic/eliminativist “information systems” Craig Venter and Alex Rosenberg apparently take us to be, shorn of free will, intentionality, personhood, even subjective reality, thinking about nothing (ever), devaluing and mistrusting their own experience, not apprehending the immediate experiential value of a sunset or a stroll on the beach. 

Hmmm. Guess that begins to explain the flatness of personal affect, the absence of detectable enthusiasm, the resistance to the power of ideas evident in some. 

(Only some, I must hasten to add.)

Information is not wisdom. It’s not even knowledge. Information systems do not experience the soaring spirituality Sagan and Tyson have celebrated. Information systems don’t care about reality, they don’t in fact give a flying bleep about much of anything. 

I wondered in class if it really makes a pragmatically-practical difference whether we sign on to radical scientism or not. The practical difference it now seems to make to me is, I notice, is that I find myself shuddering for the future of a species (the future Rosenberg says we “can’t think about”) saddled with such a burden of apathetic indifference towards its own nature and fate.

Ok, enough rant. That is all. For now. I’m sure it’ll get better. 

Spinoza (“Spinozer,” my old teacher from Brooklyn called him) believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:
Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance. 

You could say the very same of Spinoza.

In HAP 101 we tried to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we’re not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.

In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.

I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. 

 Nothing in nature is by chance… Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.

The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature… I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids. 

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we noted  Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” This contrasts sharply with Spinoza’s view. “What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.


[Descartes to Deism… Tlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)… Spinoza @dawnPantheism SEP… John Locke Can Walk]

Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,… but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity. 

“Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you’re passionate,” subject to external influence, “you’re in bondage and unfree.” How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get “a better understanding of yourself and the world,” and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word?Pantheism

In Spinoza’s vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken… Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reasonPassion for Wisdom

And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his “intellectual love of God,” which he said was “the highest felicity.” God only knew why.

He’s still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.
  1. “[True & blessedness does not consist in enjoying wellbeing not shared by others or in being more fortunate than others].” (TTP)
  2. “It is the of reason to conceive things under a form of eternity.” (E5p29pr)

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. 

But Walter (“That’s the way it is”) Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right when he wrote:
“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

Cesar Kuriyama told TED he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”


Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more. 

Locke is more familiar to Americans as the underwriter of our pursuit of life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, we know, edited Locke on that last point.) He defended separation of church and state, and toleration. A very enlightened guy, for his time and place, but still not clear-sighted about freedom from worship for those who choose it.

In his continuing discussion of Richard Rorty, Carlin Romano points to the “vulgarization of the word ‘pragmatic’ by ordinary Americans, who used it as a synonym for crass everyday practicality…” I’m not sure I’d agree that everyday practicality is crass at all, but it’s true that the word has been abused. Especially by political chatterers.

Rorty wrote with “energy, humor, great tolerance, an exemplary clarity… and a rare ability to communicate enthusiasm and sheer love of ideas.”  Well, no wonder he aroused so much jealousy and resentment among his peers! Also, he was extremely “well read.” He liked Dewey. And he thought philosophy should acknowledge its “literary character.” I have close colleagues (close as in near) who don’t agree, with any of those points of substance and style. I do.

 Rorty dismissed the “relativist” charge, saying the “view that every tradition is as rational or as moral as every other could be held only by a god [who’d] escaped from history.” That’s not us.

But he, too, was given to excess. Where Spinoza said all is necessity, Rorty said all is contingency. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in-between.

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Life, synthetic and soaring

March 18, 2014

Ready or not, we’re back! In Bioethics today Craig Venter discusses the first synthetic genome and the conversion of species, and in A&P Alex Rosenberg says there’s a lot less to consciousness and the brain than folk wisdom allows. 

Let me just say, a propos of both classes, that I hope you’ve been savoring the first two episodes of the new Cosmos as much as I. They provide an ideal backdrop for the most basic questions about life and its meaning(s). Neil deGrasse Tyson nailed it in when he said the awareness of our kinship with every form of life is nothing less than a soaring spiritual experience. 

Nothing about synthetic biology necessarily disrupts that special feeling of universal relatedness, just as nothing about human selectivity in “sculpting” our best friends the canines over the past 15,000 years necessarily compromises our species’ mutual loyalty. But something unsettling lurks, nonetheless. We should explore that.

Rosenberg’s scientism, turned towards our own thinking and feeling selves, seems to subvert intentionality or “aboutness,” potentially threatening the integrity of experiences that soar. No? We need to talk about that too. I’m concerned that Rosenberg’s proposed elimination of spontaneously instigating ideas, in exchange for the alternative vision of ourselves as naturally selected and programmed behavioral machines without free will or purpose, leaves no room for voyages of the imagination like Neil Tyson’s and Carl Sagan’s. Or Craig Venter’s?

And lest we forget, we’re still deep in the Good Book’s “Histories” where the forest of meaning and wisdom often seems lost in the trees of transient events. All those Persians, Spartans, Samians, Scythians et al, fighting and dying and evidently not learning history’s lessons. But we’ll keep looking. “Nothing comes without trouble,” (57.38) and “hurry always brings disasters,” (58.20), and as Xerxes knew, “success attends those who act boldly, not those who weigh everything.” (60.27) 

Xerxes may just have had something to say about synthetic biology and the soaring human spirit, after all. And something about aboutness, Professor Rosenberg?

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Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal, Rorty

March 17, 2014

We’re back from Spring Break today, in CoPhi, first with the last group report presentations (postponed by our slight Snow Day before the break; then, Descartes (& Grayling on Descartes), Montaigne (& Bakewell on How to Live acc’ing to M), Pascal, and Romano on Richard Rorty. Three old French philosophers and one recent American. Only one of them (Descartes) thought we could truly know anything, but even he admitted he wasn’t entirely sure life is not a dream. (First day back has its dream-like aspect, doesn’t it?)

That’s a bit misleading. None of them was an all-devouring Pyrrhonian, though  Montaigne had his moments. He and Rorty in particular were really taking issue with unreasonably high expectations for what we call knowledge. Lower those, and we’ll know more than enough. In any event we know plenty that can’t be “known” and (as Mark Twain put it) more that just ain’t so. 


One other thing we know is the historical timelineMontaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much “fun” to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic (again though, not so far over the cliff as Pyrrho) and “quite happy to live with that.” His slogan was Que sçais-je?

Montaigne inscribed the beams of his study with many of his favorite quotes, including “nothing human is foreign to me” and “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

 [Montaigne @dawn… M on Self-esteem (deB)… M quotes… M’s beam inscriptions… M “In Our Time” (BBC)…M’s tower]



Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a “drunken fart,” simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?


Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.


I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me.

Still, says Grayling, “we may disagree with Descartes that the right place to start is with the private data of consciousness” rather than the shared world of language and common experience; but even if he was wrong he was “powerfully, interestingly, and importantly wrong.”

There’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], besides his mathematics and “Pascaline,” his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!
Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”

And

“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

And

“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*

And

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”


But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.


And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind. 

Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy’s long quest to represent “external reality” accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our “comic” efforts “to guarantee this and clarify that.” 

Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.

My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that’s what he’d call a duct tape question.

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