Archive for April, 2014

Searle, Turing, Singer, Obama

April 30, 2014

Last day of class, before final exams next week. But, as I never tire of repeating, nothing has really concluded. The sun will come out tomorrow, figuratively at least. And it’s going to be 72 here today. December’s looking up, for the goal-oriented.

(Also worth repeating: “A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal,” Nietzsche’s “formula” of happiness. Not that it worked out all that well for him.)

But Philosophy’s message is unchanged: you don’t have to follow anybody. Sapere Aude.

You could do worse, if you really wanted to think for yourself, than follow the example of Peter Singer“the best known living moral philosopher” who urges us to “think through” what most take for granted, then alter our acts and assumptions accordingly.

Singer’s on our final CoPhi bill (after John Searle and Alan Turing [PhilDic] at the end of Little History of Philosophy today. And, one last pitch from Carlin Romano, making the case for viewing Barack Obama as “philosopher and cosmopolitan in chief.”

“How should we treat animals?” Respectfully, of course. But does that mean we can eat them or not? Singer says no. Michael Pollan, among others, says maybe. I say I wish they’d build a better Boca Burger. 

Alan Turing was a strange, heroic, and tragic figure who contributed more to preserving the world we had (by cracking the Nazis’ codes) and shaping the digitized world we live in now (by contributing to the creation of the computer). Turing’s Cathedral… The Enigma

Turing’s test for artificial intelligence is said by some to imply that if something functions intelligently, it is intelligent; and if its functionality resembles human personality in superficial ways, we may then speak of it as possessing human-grade intelligence.

And who knows? If you’re prepared to entertain that proposal, maybe you can also envision a mainframe host in your personal future. Maybe there will be a way to “map the billions of functional connections” of your brain onto a machine capable of replicating and preserving your intelligence and memories. Welcome to the brave new afterlife.

Seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s unclear that one’s hopes and dreams and delights– the stuff of embodied personhood– can be replicated in any meaningful sense. Never mind whether they should be. Planet’s pretty crowded as it is, and maybe one time around the wheel is only our fair share.


And anyway, as John Searle says, tests like Turing’s may not be any more conclusive about real intelligence than his Chinese Room thought experiment.

Advances in AI don’t seem to have come as quickly as some have speculated they might. But it’s still fun to ponder the possibilities, as Richard Powers did in his wonderfully informed and entertaining Galatea 2.2.
What a moment we find ourselves in! Ray Kurzweil calls this the Age of Spiritual Machines. If you can just live long enough– until the year 2040 or so, last I heard– you can live forever. He means you, kids. And he’s popping enough vitamins to delude himself into thinking that maybe he means himself as well. Good luck. I’m not holding my breath. I confess, I used to have a Sleeper fantasy like Woody’s. But Ted Williams kinda ruined it for me. (Fresh Air 12.3.13)

The best form of immortality may be the same as it ever was: a legacy rippling across time, impacting lives far beyond one’s own. Alan Turing didn’t live long enough to get himself fully digitized, but the digital world he set in motion has already secured a legacy likely to outlive us all. It dwarfs the primitive world of reflexive sexual bigotry he had to suffer in his brief lifetime.


To those who have a hard time fathoming how machines might ever acquire self-awareness, intentionality, and thought, Turing asks you t o ask yourself: how did we?
Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s? If this were then subjected to an appropriate course of education one would obtain the adult brain. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”

Singer’s challengePeter Singer challenges the way we live in the relatively prosperous western world (“western” here is less a geographic designation than a state of mind and material comfort) on many fronts, including how we eat, how much we luxuriate, how much we earmark for our own offspring, and how much we give away to strangers. He sets the bar of selfless generosity much higher than our culture of consumption rewards. But the rewards of consumption don’t begin to match those of humane compassion.


  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
  • “The Hebrew word for “charity” tzedakah, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”
  • “Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”
  • “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
  • “Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

So, the end is nigh. But since it’s really not: carry on. Keep asking questionscreate satisfaction,follow your bliss, and again: “your own track, kid, not what your guru tells you.”

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Generosity & Mortality

April 29, 2014
Bioethics ends with Generosity, and the character nicknamed “Generosity.” Thassa constantly channels Richard Dawkins sanshubris (one reason why Powers and I love her): “we are the lucky ones,” he said.
And she says

Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn

And

No one should be anything but dead.

And

Everything that is, is ours.

She’s right, of course; but of course like the rest of us she finally has a hard time holding those thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most elevated moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.
Older Daughter amazed me by participating in NaNoWriMo, ”national novel-writing month,” a public writing project in which participants pounded out 50,000 words in thirty days. I was so impressed with her determination and stamina. I’d have felt more like Russell Stone, or a weak-willed Sisyphus, if you’d made me do that: “I have to go take my own life.”
All writing is re-rewriting. In the past that’s always slowed us down. If we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up. Hang on.
As a pragmatist I feel somewhat dissed by Powers’ characterization of the ”witty pragmatism” of the positive psychologist who tells “Oona’s” audience– much like Oprah’s– about happiness. He might be right, though, to advise keeping your options open (“stay loose and keep revising the plan”). Is Powers right to predict that pop media culture will be the largest stage upon which our collective future is to be written? Scary thought. But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too.
Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. He’s with techno-utopian Kevin Kelly, in the Updike-Kelly dispute. I’m still in Updike’s (not Kurton’s or Kelly’s) corner.
More Dawkins-esque rhapsodizing about our evolutionary epic:

Six hundred generations ago, we were scratching on the walls of caves. Now we’re sequencing genomes… If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves.

That’s a bit harsh, but I’m inspired. I’m also partial to my old-fashioned founts of happiness. Can’t we have both?
Finally, in this oddly self-referential tale that ends in narrative dissolution, Powers asks “What kind of story would ever end with us?”  For now our story simply continues with us. Where it all ends remains our most vital question. Unlike some reviewers [JWoodJMcInerney] (but like others), I love the postmodern ambiguous ending of Powers’ story.  “She’s still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceived her, still uncrushed by the collective need for happier endings.” Thassa survives, battered by life but still generous and smiling at fate. We may still imagine her happy.
May we all borrow her generosity and cheer, give all we’ve got right now, and meet the future in due course. The Atlas goes dark every night, but so far it’s always turned back again to the light. Cue the symphony.
In A&P we finish with Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality. Not a lot more needs saying, about the courage and grace of his unrepentant, unbowed exit from the only stage he knew. The only one we know. Just watch and learn, and try to emulate. He was a generous man. He gave his all to the present.

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Foot, Thomson, Rawls, Moyers, Campbell

April 28, 2014

Final report presentations continue, on Thought Experiment day in CoPhi (TX-Phi?) with Philippa Foot’s infamous runaway trolleyJudith Thomson‘s unwanted violinist (always a hot topic in Bioethics), and John Rawls‘ Veil of Ignorance in LH (& Jonathan Wolff on Rawls in PB); and in AtPBill Moyers and Joseph Campbell



And here’s a PB bonus on the Trolley Problem… more trolley problems… plus, Sarah Bakewell’s recent Times “trolley-ology” review…. (What would Montaigne say about the Fat Man? Maybe “I just don’t do trolleys.” )

For those who do trolleys, two scenarios seem to pull in different directions: either pull  a switch to divert the runaway trolley, or push a person fatally into its path. Same result, different intuitions about our moral culpability.

In numerical terms, the two situations are identical. A strict utilitarian, concerned only with the greatest happiness of the greatest number, would see no difference: In each case, one person dies to save five. Yet people seem to feel differently about the “Fat Man” case. The thought of seizing a random bystander, ignoring his screams, wrestling him to the railing and tumbling him over is too much. Surveys suggest that up to 90 percent of us would throw the lever in “Spur,” while a similar percentage think the Fat Man should not be thrown off the bridge. Yet, if asked, people find it hard to give logical reasons for this choice. Assaulting the Fat Man just feels wrong; our instincts cry out against it.

I find it hard to take trolleys seriously. But there is a point to thinking about cartoonishly-exaggerated ethical scenarios…
basic trolley scenariobridge situation


What is the point of thought experiments? (What is the point of armchairs?) To “trigger our awareness of conflicts between judgments that we previously held in combination” and “open up new conversations.” And give us a relaxed venue for mulling stressful situations, so we’ll be prepared for the them if and when they come. Mostly thought experiments are just fun.


One result of trolley experiments is the valuable reminder that concrete choices, in even the most contrived, improbable situations, are messy and complicated. A normally-endowed and emotionally healthy human being will never find it easy to pull a switch that kills, no matter what she tells you. 

A cool utilitarian calculus has its place, and so do our subrational instinctive juices. If either were missing, we would make some truly terrible choices. Yet there is also still room for that quaint seated figure, thinking through the principles and working out a kind of pragmatic yet justifiable wisdom. An armchair is also a useful place for reading books [about thought experiments]. With all this help, then perhaps when the trolley comes rattling around the corner, and with a half-second to decide, you might just do the right thing. Whatever that may be.Bakewell


John Rawls’ veil. Rawls was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.

What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.

An amusing (if not especially animated) rendition of Rawls:


Last time we talked Rawls somebody suggested a sporting example: a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others  might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.

But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners.  There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.

Michael Sandel is a semi-Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument. He’s also, as Wolff notes, “a communitarian who thinks Rawls is biased towards liberal individualistic conceptions of the good.”


And he likes to think about trolleys too.


The late Robert Remini, biographer of Jackson and Claywas by my reckoning a Rawlsian in spirit. He bemoaned the lost art of political compromise. (“Clay,” btw, is a family namesake: my Dad was James Clay, his Dad was Clay, and back it went deep into the 19th century. A rooted source of my pragmatic attraction to anti-ideology, perhaps?) [Remini on NPR]

An important question: “who’s doing the imagining in the Original Position?” A bunch of philosophers will presumably think and deliberate differently from a bunch of fascists, or monks. But if it’s a polyglot mix drawn from a diverse society, and none of them knows their race, sex, earning power, or basic preferences, maybe they won’t think exclusively like (narrow or partisan) philosophers, fascists, and monks. Maybe they’ll think like pluralists and cosmopolitans. Maybe they won’t be prepared to gamble with their liberty. Maybe they’ll want to be just and fair, and be more inclined to take care of the least well-off. Maybe so. 

Carlin Romano fills out Rawls’s position with the important, astonishing, neglected biographical Rawls back-story. It’s useful and illuminating to know who he is, in assessing his theory of justice. He was a lucky child, recovering from diptheria and pneumonia, then a lucky soldier. His siblings and army brothers were not so lucky. He felt bad about his good luck, and angry about the theodicies offered to account for it. 

A Lutheran pastor… said that God aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs. I don’t know why this made me so angry, but it certainly did. I upbraided the Pastor (who was a First Lieutenant) for saying what I assumed he knew perfectly well… were simple falsehoods about divine providence… Christian doctrine ought not to be used for that…

To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice… I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil. 

Did Rawls “fail” to justify his theory of justice? Wolff doesn’t think so. Nor, apparently, do the theatrical producers behind this:


Bill Moyers has been the most philosophically-curious face on television for a long time, producing programs and companion books like A World of Ideas, Healing and the Mind, andLanguage of Life. Just watched his late-’80s interview with Isaac Asimov, it’s riveting. And Moyers’ series with the late Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, was a surprise smash hit. It’s all about discovery and creation of meaning. “To find your own way is to follow your bliss…”

Or, as we trolley philosophers say: “Your own track, kid, and not what your guru tells you.”

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What doesn’t kill you…

April 24, 2014

All writing is re-writing, Russell Stone keeps saying. Let’s re-write that Nietzschean cliche: What doesn’t kill you makes you a liver. So live.

On tap today in Bioethics: we finish with Blackford’s Humanity Enhanced, continue with Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement, and get on with more final report presentations (on transhumanism, designer babies, and Henrietta Lacks’ HELA cells.)

In A&P it’s more Hitch, drawing ominously closer to the terminus of his Mortality. And, more presentations. The end is nigh.

Blackford’s last word:

I’m convinced that the crisis we currently face is not the coming of Frankensteinian or apocalyptic technologies that must be controlled as a matter of urgency. Rather, there is a crisis of liberal tolerance…

our lawmakers [have] an opportunity to show their credentials as successors to Locke and Mill. May they rise to the challenge.

In other words, let us go boldly into the unknown country of reconstructive bio-engineering, in the spirit of personal liberty and experimental freedom. Don’t over-regulate. Don’t block progress. Have no fear.

I want to get behind that message, but then I read Powers’ Aussie novelist (not such a knock-off of Blackford, after all) channeling Bill McKibben’s Enough voice and again I feel the pull of those old reservations:

Enhancement will mean nothing, in the long run. The remodeling of human nature will be as slapdash and flawed as its remodelers. We’ll never feel enhanced. We’ll always be banned from some further Eden…

 And then, our Sisyphean hero Stone rehearses the old fear:

So this is how the species ends. Homo sapiens divided, if not into Eloi and the Morlocks, then into demigods and dispossessed, those who can tame living chemistry and those who are mere downstream products…

Meanwhile, Craig Venter’s alt-universe alter ego Thomas Kurton pushes fearlessly forward. 

 Apparently Kurton’s group has found a network of several crucial genes that help build the gates and portals that channel the brain’s molecules of emotion. Control for any of them, and changes in the rest correlate with changes in sanguinity… Tune each of the genes to the right flavor, and you have subject C3-16f [“Miss Generosity”]… 

 And “that’s the beauty of the digital-replacement world.” We’ve not all moved there yet, this is still fiction. But the engineers and technotopians are moving, many say resistance is futile. And foolish? Kurton is seductive, with his “microbes that live on dioxins and digest waste plastics. Fast-growing trees that sequester greenhouse gases. Human beings free from all congenital disease.” Sounds too irresistibly good.

“Technology changes what we think is intolerable,” but the ethical question is whether what we conclude is intolerable can change the technologies we decide to live with, and without. And that question is still open, or so we ethicists must presume.

And as for Miss Generosity, at this pivotal stage of our story: “She herself is far too sunny for her own good. It hasn’t yet dawned on her that this story might actually be nonfiction.”

It had definitely dawned on Christopher Hitchens, at this stage of his Stage Four decline, that the story of his cancer was all too true. And yet, what grace and focus he musters to give us his eloquent insider’s account of just how it feels to leave the country of the living with eyes open to the real meaning of life-and-death reality. How it felt to contemplate never seeing England again.

Nietzsche was wrong, Hitch reports: what hasn’t killed you (yet) still weakens and debilitates. That may seem a necessary illusion for most of us, for most of our days. Hitch ends chapter 6, though, with the most Hitchian of statements: “the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.” 

In case you missed it, an earlier observation counters the mood of disillusion and offers more than solace for a life well lived. 

“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.”

So don’t. Just live.

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Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, and the Hitch

April 23, 2014

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein (and Barry Smith on Wittgenstein),ArendtPopper & Kuhn in LH, and the infamous Christopher (“God is not great“) Hitchens, among others in AtP.

We’re also reading Hitchens in A&P, his incredibly inspiring Mortality. No atheists in foxholes or cancer wards? Hitch was here.

But before I forget: the Earth Day debate with Rabbi Rami was terrific, at least from my spot in the circle. We need to do thatmore often, get together with our students and exchange ideas. Too many of the gatherings on the 3d floor of our building, lately, are about things like copy machines and future schedules. For what it’s worth.

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn’t admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family historywas less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might “capture reality” and toward a more constructive inquiry into “the relationship between language and us.”

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to “explain” Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed “our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given.” That’s what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.


Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It’s supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its “meaning-as-use” was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called “Glorious Accident“) tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.


A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion,” it says he said on the wall in Vandy’s Buttrick Hall. It doesn’t say where or when (1929) he said it. It’s in the posthumous collection Culture and Valueright below “Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.” Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That’s from Douglas Adams, but curiously it’s also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein’s biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn’t give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. “Explaining,” says novelist Richard Ford, “is where we all get into trouble.”

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.


Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth


She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.


Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists “brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders” without reflection. There’s nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas. Best Popper quote:
True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.


“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.
I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.

Max Lerner published America as a Civilization in 1957, setting the stage for AtP. He “started as an impressive scholar,” at Harvard and elsewhere, before taking up journalism. His big book of America, oddly described as the intellectual history John Dewey would have written had he been Max Lerner, spotlighted its “special capacity for innovation and adaptation.” Some think that was always an overblown form of jingoistic exceptionalism, others think it’s the mojo that got Apollo to the moon and that we need badly to recover.  

I.F. (“Izzy”) Stone, “radical journalist turned classicist,” turned late attention to Socrates/Plato (it’s a deficiency of his Trial of Socrates that he made no attempt to separate their views) and concluded that the great gadfly – whose pestiferous social role, ironically, was not unlike Stone’s own – was a conceited snob who “didn’t give a damn about democracy.” That seems excessive.

British-born Christopher Hitchens chose to become an American, and no American ever exercised his freedom of expression to greater effect. He wasn’t afraid to change his mind in public, but through all his changes remained faithful to his hero Orwell’s hatred of dictatorship and servility. 

He was verbally pugnacious, loquacious, frequently outrageous, and is much missed even by many of his religious and political opponents. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, pioneering geneticist, and unabashed convert to Christianity, became his friend and medical consultant. Unlike fellow “horseman” Dan Dennett, facing his own health crisis, Hitch did not bat away the solicitous prayers offered (sincerely or sardonically) by the faithful on his behalf. (“Did you also sacrifice a goat?”) But he never retracted his position on religion – that it’s poisonous, harmful, “irreducibly servile and masochistic” and infantile. 

“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think—though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one—that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”   God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything… 92Y… wfb

As noted, we’re reading his incredible deathbed testament, Mortality, in A&P. It’s a pretty eloquent rebuttal of the charge that atheists somehow duck or fail the question of meaning. Not even his strongest critics would deny that Hitch’s life was full of it. Meaning, that is.

“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.”

Finally balded by chemo but still vital and defiant and inspiring, he wrote and debated (here with creationist Dembski) right to the end of a rich life cut short by cancer. His “closing remarks” deserve to last. The view from this atheist’s “foxhole” was anything but servile.


“Take the risk of thinking for yourself…” 

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Earth Week Debate

April 22, 2014

In Bioethics and A&P we commence final report presentations today, while continuing to read (Blackford on Rawls on enhancement, Powers’ Generosity, Hitchens’ Mortality).

After class, in celebration of Earth Week, I get to debate my friend the Rabbi (who happens also to be a regular on the interfaith panel circuit, and an adept rhetorician) on God. Oh boy.

I’ve been assigned the “negative” proposition. I can do that, just barely, if allowed (like my esteemed opponent) to stipulate a non-standard definition. He’ll redefine “God,” to affirm the resolution. I’ll redefine (or maybe just evade) “possible” to deny it, and to affirm what in my opinion is incontestable: our species’ urgent need to find common ground in addressing the environmental challenges of our time.

I’ll borrow E.O. Wilson’s tone and temper in The Creation.

I am a secular humanist. I think existence is what we make of it as individuals. There is no guarantee of life after death, and  heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet. There is no other home… For you, the glory of an unseen divinity; for me, the glory of the universe revealed at last. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You have found your final truth; I am still searching. I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right. Does this difference in worldview separate us in all things? It does not. You and I and every other human being strive for the imperatives of security, freedom of choice, personal dignity, and a cause to believe in that is larger than ourselves. 

Let us see, then, if we can, and you are willing, to meet on the near side of metaphysics in order to deal with the real world we share…

 My brief, though straying from the letter of our forensic charge, is simple: there’s no indication that extra-human help is on its way. In fact, every indication suggests we’re on our own, without practical recourse to any “final truth.” We’ve got to find it within ourselves to conform our personal behaviors and public policies to ameliorative, sustainable alternatives.

If God-talk (including the sort of God-talk Spinoza and Einstein and maybe Rabbi Rami have sponsored) brings more of us on board with that message, then it’s “possible” – which by high redefinition I interpret to mean constructive and pragmatically, experimentally, provisionally vindicated.

But, and it’s a big but: in my experience, those who embrace that sort of God and talk that sort of talk tend, in the words of “Miss Generosity,” to “decide no more than God.” That is, they walk away from a firm commitment to finding human solutions to overwhelming anthropogenic challenges. They render God impossible, in the stipulated sense.

That’s what I think I’m going to say. But I don’t get to speak first, so I may have to improvise. In the larger sense, we all have to improvise a world our kind can continue to live in.

Happy Earth Week!

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From Sartre to Hefner

April 21, 2014

It’s French existentialism and American hedonism today in CoPhi: Sartre (& Mary Warnock on Sartre), de Beauvoir, Camus,  Fussell, and Hefner. Yup, that Hefner: the Playboy Philosopher


And what a perfect juxtaposition of opposites, class critic Fussell and classy Lady Warnock. (Give her a listen, she sounds straight from Central Casting.)

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals. “Paris needed a philosophy that would give to individuals a belief in themselves and their own powers,” says Lady W., and that’s what JPS and his cohort tried to give them. That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi. 


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

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



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

[Breaking: guess who’s getting back together?!]

Some more extreme Gallic/Existential statements:

  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”
And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-bombs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love. At least the guy who said hell is other people liked cats.
  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”
Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.
Camus also said

  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Albert Camus gave us the Existential version of Sisyphus, and the “fundamental question of philosophy”:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
OK, got it. My answer is yes, of course life is worth living. Living’s not always easy, but there’s usually something to show for your hard work. It can be a source of happiness. (And what does Sisyphus do after hours?)



The next question, having consented to live, is how. Politics is supposed to help with that. But in this perpetual season of political discontent, when the polls say all politicians and parties are uniformly scorned by the populace, there have been moments when many of us have wondered if it’s all worth it. Camus felt the same.
“Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people’s anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble – yes, gamble – with a whole part of their life and their so called ‘vital interests.”

Politics was supposed to be all about freeing the people to pursue happiness, Mr. Jefferson said. If it’s hard to imagine Sisyphus happy, it may be harder to expect that from our politics these days. But we must keep on pushing.

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


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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Generosity and The Search

April 17, 2014

We consider some purported “indirect and intangible harms” of human enhancement today in Bioethics, in Russell Blackford’s next Humanity Enhanced chapter; and we begin Richard Powers’ Generosity: An Enhancement. It’s a novel about a world just slightly off-kilter from ours, and in a way it’s also about indirect, intangible, unintended harms we might self-inflict if we continue down the road of genomic self-improvement. So, it’s a cautionary tale whose cryptic epigraph may need translating (and not just from Albert Camus’ French): 

La vrai generosite envers l’avenir consiste a tout donner au present.

In A&P we wrap up Carl Sagan’s Gifford Lectures in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, with “The Search.” What are we searching for? Life elsewhere, meaning and happiness here. An answer to what William James called our most “vital question,” the future of life. You could say we’re searching for an upgrade, dreaming of an enhanced future, taking steps in the present to get there. What would Camus say?

Part One of Generosity begins with a quote from Kay Redfield Jamison that speaks directly to the spirit of “search” and exploration:

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go – across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination – and if we ourselves are not so exuberant we will, caught up by the contagious joy of those who are, be inclined collectively to go yonder.

 The crucial bioethical choices we’ll be making in the near future promise great or terrible consequences for what the Aussie humanist in Generosity (uncannily resembling our man Blackford) calls the future of “human nature.” This story has just begun. Powers wants us to understand that we, collectively, will write the sequel. It’s not out yet. The future’s coming fast but it’s not yet fully determined. (That, we noted last class, is part of what Bill McKibben was trying to communicate as well, in Enough.)


“But this is when the story is at its most desperate: when techne and sophia are still kin, when the distant climax is still ambiguous, the outcome a dead heat between salvation and ruin.”

Blackford’s prosaic tone is a lot less urgent, but he’s still urging: “the burden of proof [is] on those who favor suppression of a practice,” and “little warning needs to be given against the creation of beings who would suffer and perhaps be driven to desperation, like the monster depicted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

Well, there are no Frankenstein monsters in Generosity, but Powers is giving warning: slow down, don’t rush to embrace enhancements whose consequences may engender unanticipated despair. Try telling Thassadit Amzwar that “little warning needs to be given.”

We’re reading  Generosity because it raises some of the most profoundly meaningful life issues we face, questions about the possibility of meaningful experience in the human future as we move forward into an increasingly engineered, digitized, hive-minded, televised, entertained (to death?) world of applied biotechnology. These are questions about our own authorship and appropriation of the meanings of our lives, questions about fact and fiction and science fiction becoming fact.

May I suggest that anyone who’s challenged by the density or initial indirection of this book consider giving a tandem listen to the excellent audio version available at audible.com.




Meanwhile, back in the Cosmos, Carl Sagan concludes with an emboldening motivational speech.

If we know only one kind of life, we are extremely limited in our understanding even of that kind of life… [The Search] goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.

And so may we go, boldly. 

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Russell & Ayer, Lakoff & Johnson

April 16, 2014

…and more.  Too many unheralded nonacademics on parade, in AtP, to name in the subject line.  Carlin Romano’s implicit invitation, in case you’ve forgotten: join the parade. 

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

That’s a small philosophy pun, PB’s Ramsey expert Hugh Mellor is also an expert on time. And it’s in marginally bad taste too, given that poor Ramsey’s un-Russellian time was tragically short: he lived only to age 26. But as Mellor says, he accomplished far more than most philosophers manage in that fraction of a lifetime, including the “redundancy” theory of truth that (ironically, paradoxically!) implies the gratuity of theories of truth without disavowing truth’s centrality to philosophy. 

Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”)…. Russell @dawn… Russell Ayer… Logicomix]

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

So much has been said about Russell, and by him. The truth question was pretty cut-and-dried, he thought, like religion and the pragmatic approach in general.

There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. If it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn’t… it’s dishonesty and intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true. 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts. 

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence. 

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. 

Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?  [Why I Am Not a Christian… More Russell]


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

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

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

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

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

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


Old Ayer claimed his premature dalliance with death in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]



…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. 

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!! 

No moral system can rest solely on authority. [Or as Russell said: nothing externally imposed can be of any value.]

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McKibbben’s end, Sagan’s rationality

April 15, 2014

In Bioethics today we consider “the natural order,” and the conservative idea that we must perpetually refrain from altering or upsetting it.

In A&P, we get Carl Sagan’s personal and cosmic perspective on God and religious experience, and “Acts” in the Good Book. (442-493)


Bill McKibben has been a hero of mine ever since he published The End of Nature and effectively re-launched the modern environmental movement a quarter of a century ago. I’m not sure he’s always right, but I know he’s always passionately clear-headed and honest about the high ecological stakes we and our fossil fuel Overlords have been gambling with. In Blackford’s fifth chapter, McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age is curtly critiqued as needlessly alarmist. His worries over the prospect that our genetic interventions may rob future humans of meaning are dismissed lightly. Blackford spends inordinate attention on “immortals” and not enough on the potential flattening of ordinary life for us mere mortals, in the brave new transhuman world.


True, “we are ill equipped to predict what activities and experiences will be satisfying , joyful, or meaningful for future people who might grow up and interact in environments quite different from our own.” But that hardly lets us off the hook, when we try to confront the impact of our choices on the predictably-shrunken capacity for choosing of our near (not futuristic and remote) descendants. “These are the most anti-choice technologies anyone’s ever thought of,” writes McKibben.


I do want to make effective alliance with the risk-takers and enhancers as against the Luddites and anti-technologists, truly, but I see no evidence that any of them (including Blackford) has grasped or grappled with the profundity of concern expressed in Enough. It’s not an idle grumble about the unpredictability of life in the 24th century, it’s about the lives our very children and grandchildren will be free (or not) to live.


Carl Sagan, on the other hand, was entirely keyed in to the challenges that will confront our human future. Let’s hope he was prophetic: “there is a pervasive human wish to give a rational explanation for the existence of a God or gods.”


Or, a rational explanation for their absence.


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