Archive for June, 2014

How we ground our ethics

June 30, 2014

That was a quintessentially lazy summer Sunday afternoon, full of just the sort of “nothing” Calvin was talking about: Sunday Times, hammock, cold Fat Tire, On Being on the radio…

But the conversation between a mathematician and a philosopher on science and religion was something. They were both smart and civil, the theist mathematician (Jim Bradley) sounding like Michael J. Fox and the Darwinian humanist philosopher (Michael Ruse) responding to the tired old question of how nontheists “ground” their ethics by reminding us to heed the wisdom of le Bon David.

Ms. Tippett: But I think the question is, um, where is your ethical sensibility rooted, or what…

Dr. Ruse: I think it’s rooted in my psychology. I mean, I’m a Humian. I mean, ultimately, I’ve — David Hume says you can do all this philosophy you like, but it, you know, you end in skepticism, but fortunately, you know, I dine, I converse with my friends, I play a game of backgammon, uh, when I get back to my study, it all seemed cold and strained. And basically that’s where I’m at. I personally think that, you know, psychology — I don’t go through life worrying about whether the world is going to end tonight.

I don’t go through life thinking, okay, I’m a Darwinian, it’s okay for me to go out and rape and pillage, and, you know, and get away with it, because I’m an evolved human being. So why would I do anything else? So, at a certain level, I know Jim would disagree with me, I think Christianity is irrelevant. You know, in fact, it’s just something of a…

Ms. Tippett: You mean in terms of…

Dr. Ruse: …scab on the situation? 

An irrelevant scab! I’ll be using that.

Today, by the way, is the anniversary of the most famous historical public debate between a theist and a Darwinian, the notorious Wilberforce-Huxley exchange. Bishop versus Bulldog. That was really something.

There is no transcript of the day’s events, but one exchange has reached the status of legend. Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his father’s side or his mother’s, and Huxley retorted that he was not ashamed to have a monkey as an ancestor, but he would be ashamed to descend from someone who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. Most accounts include some version of this story, but according to Hooker, that may have been all that most people heard. In his report to Darwin (who was too ill to attend), Hooker wrote:
“Well, Sam Oxon got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness … Huxley answered admirably and turned the tables, but he could not throw his voice over so large an assembly nor command the audience … he did not allude to Sam’s weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience. The battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster fainted, the excitement increased as others spoke; my blood boiled, I felt myself a dastard; now I saw my advantage; I swore to myself that I would smite that Amalekite, Sam, hip and thigh if my heart jumped out of my mouth, and I handed my name up to the President as ready to throw down the gauntlet.”
Hooker was the closing speaker of the discussion, and he felt that his speech had carried the day (of course, Wilberforce and Huxley each felt the same way about their own speeches). In the end, though each side claimed victory, most accounts chalk it up as a win for the Darwinians. Writer’s Almanac

In the end it will be a win for the Darwinians.  At the far end, of course, there will be no victories to tally because there will be no victors left on the field. My favorite tweeter put it this way:

“Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the Sun.” But remember… “Back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness.”

Not a sentiment to dwell on, in the sweet light of dawn. The back of everything can wait. What would David do? Fire a rocket, eat a hot dog, play some backgammon or watch some futbol and baseball with friends.

Happy Independence week.

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I just want to celebrate

June 27, 2014

The world will little note, nor long remember… but it was fun all the same, watching the live stream of Vandy’s welcome home celebration for the new College World Series champions last evening. The Chancellor said “this is a very big deal” and told the boys “you are the absolute best!” The Governor more quietly praised the team for how it went about achieving its success, and claimed it for the great state of Tennessee. No orange in sight, for once.

Is it too soon for me to complain that mere academic collegiate success is never greeted with anything like this level of ecstatic celebration? When was the last time a Nobel recipient was feted with that kind of reception? (When was the last time the Nobel competition was featured in ESPN prime time for three consecutive nights? I guess that’s a relevant riposte.)

Yeah, too soon. Anchor Down, boys!

Meanwhile, Team USA lost to Germany and is being heralded for making the cut. I’ll never understand futbol. But never mind. If you can’t indulge mindless celebration in the waning days of June, when can you? Jennifer Hecht is right, occasionally surrendering to the festive spirit in public is happy-making.

One day of a blissful community festival can forge allegiances to an idea or a place that can go on to animate a lifetime. The emotion of ecstasy is shockingly potent stuff. It is a good thing the effect lasts so long, because ecstasy is not easy to obtain.

Let’s just play that song my subconscious woke me with this morning…

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Safe at home

June 26, 2014

I’ve never paid much attention to the College World Series, and was prepared to pay no more this morning, but my school won it last night. That’s never happened before. In fact, the only other national championship Vandy’s ever won was in women’s bowling.

So, I’ll resume my kvetching about the corruptions of the NCAA, the misplaced priorities of major collegiate athletics, and the general loopiness of spectator sports mania later. Right now I’m just going to celebrate that great “safe at home” feeling. Virginia acquitted themselves admirably, and as late as the 8th inning looked like a champion-in-waiting. But that’s why they play the games. Congrats, Commies!

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Walk the dog

June 25, 2014

Last night’s game in Omaha left me frowning, so I went looking for some baseball humor. This works for me.

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June 24, 2014

The feeling of a good walk is of connected solitude, of self-possessed relatedness to the ground beneath one’s feet and all those other dawn treaders (on two legs or four) we share it with. It’s not at all a feeling of loneliness, or even aloneness, even on those rare days when it’s too hot for canine or other companionship.

Good walks engender humane and empathetic fellow-feeling, they break through all isolating walls, material and notional. This goes for mundane neighborhood strolls no less than for extraordinary treks in remote and exotic locales. Emerson’s crossing his “bare common” in a state of  exhilaration is one kind of example. One of Admiral Byrd’s 1934 Antarctic rambles (as related by Anthony Storr)  is another. “Took my daily walk at 4 p.m. today in 89° of frost… I paused to listen to the silence…”  

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Unforced flowers

June 23, 2014

First, to mark the moment: I was really into that futbol match yesterday afternoon, right up until the terminal “strike” when it ended in an irresolute and deeply unsatisfying tie. Yuck.

Far more gratifying was my alma mater’s 10th inning 4-3 win Saturday night against Texas, propelling them unambiguously into the finals of the College World Series against Virginia.

But those are only games. I’m here to speak of life.

John Dewey is my second-favorite philosopher, even though I probably agree with him more frequently (were we keeping score) than I do with William James. Critics have objected to Dewey’s scientism, but his democratic version of that mindset is much like Carl Sagan’s and not at all like (say) Alex Rosenberg’s: in a word, it’s humane.

And, it’s right for our time. Only a suitably-scientific form of intellectual honesty can possibly save us from ourselves and our selective approach to the recognition of realities. Yesterday’s Doonesbury spoke nicely to that.

Critics also have objected to Dewey’s prose style, which admittedly can sometimes be workmanlike and stolid. But it soars often enough for me, as in the conclusion of the first book of Dewey’s I ever read cover-to cover back in my first semester of Grad School.

Poetry, art, religion are precious things. They cannot be maintained by lingering in the past and futilely wishing to restore what the movement of events in science, industry and politics has destroyed. They are an out-flowering of thought and desires that unconsciously converge into a disposition of imagination as a result of thousands and thousands of daily episodes and contact. They cannot be willed into existence or coerced into being. The wind of the spirit bloweth where it listeth and the kingdom of God in such things does not come with observation. But while it is impossible to retain and recover by deliberate volition old sources of religion and art that have been discredited, it is possible to expedite the development of the vital sources of a religion and art that are yet to be. Not indeed by action directly aimed at their production, but by substituting faith in the active tendencies of the day for dread and dislike of them, and by the courage of intelligence to follow whither social and scientific changes direct us. We are weak today in ideal matters because intelligence is divorced from aspiration. The bare force of circumstance compels us onwards in the daily detail of our beliefs and acts, but our deeper thoughts and desires turn backwards. When philosophy shall have co-operated with the course of events and made clear and coherent the meaning of the daily detail, science and emotion will interpenetrate, practice and[Pg 213] imagination will embrace. Poetry and religious feeling will be the unforced flowers of life. To further this articulation and revelation of the meanings of the current course of events is the task and problem of philosophy in days of transition. Reconstruction in Philosophy

I have a new hanging plant just before my gaze, out here on the back porch. When I arrive each morning it looks wan and paltry. Then I write a bit. It begins opening to the dawn. Like me.

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And then I go walking. On my return it looks like this.

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Unforced. Nice metaphor, John Dewey.

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On going

June 20, 2014

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) is a neglected walking philosopher and philosopher of walking, though they did an entire In Our Time on him without mention of his pedestrian proclivity. Odd, since Melvyn Bragg’s chatty post-production missives frequently recount his own  traipses about London.

But all dedicated walkers know this Hazlitt reflection, only superficially misanthropic for its repudiation of human companionship during his walks:

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner–and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy. From the point of yonder rolling cloud I plunge into my past being, and revel there… and I begin to feel, think, and be myself again. Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull common-places, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence.

The impulse here is to break free of artifice and pretense, and stride into full self-possession. There’s nothing hateful or reclusive about it. It foreshadows Thoreau. (What would either of them make of the automa-technology that produced this wooden – though still oddly charming – representation?)

Hazlitt said “travel’s greatest purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”  That’ll be a good motto for our peripatetic Study Abroad course, which is again at the front of my drawing board.

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The music recommences

June 19, 2014

“From the bottom of every fountain of pleasure,” claimed William James (and an old poet) “arises a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy.” A putrid whiff of meaninglessness and futility, a demoralized sense of time as ticking too quickly away without a sequel, a gnawing feeling that the music of life is a mere distraction from life’s underlying unmusical dissonance and despair, in a cold uncaring universe.

Maybe you have to have a touch of melancholia yourself, as he did, to catch the whiff. I think he probably overcompensated for this feeling in himself by trying to embrace varieties of experience that seemed to counter it, including religious experience he was reluctant to admit as alien to his own sensibility. 

When I feel it, only infrequently, I compensate by walking briskly away (figuratively and literally) from the offending odor. And then, as James also observed, “the music can commence again.” He meant that metaphorically, but of course actual music can lift the spirit in ways wonderful and strange.

It spurs one’s appreciation of the music of life, too, to have the small occasional brush with mortality. My gas grill tried to kill me last night. Eyebrows won’t need a trim anytime soon.

I’d decided the other day that I needed to get more actual music into my daily round, and finally plunked down the $25 so Apple would “turn on” & “match” my music. I’ve been having fun uploading my neglected CD collection to the cloud – one good metaphor deserves another – and blasting it back wirelessly through those booming little Bose speakers. 

And now, Amazon has announced its new Prime Music service. All at once I’m inundated with musical options. 

The best music, though, is still the birdsong soundtrack surrounding these dawn porch posts in summertime.

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A big juicy creative life

June 18, 2014

“Seeing yourself from a distance as part of a landscape,” says David Brooks, is crucial to personal growth and the eventual mastery of a skill or a vocation. He’s right, I think: the virtuoso in any field may first excel on the strength of native ability, but ultimate and enduring excellence requires diligence and repetitive, routine daily devotion. And for most of us, that requires a wider perspective and a firm vision of ourselves at the other end of the journey.

But that doesn’t mean we should expect ever to arrive at perfection, as Maria Popova usefully invokes Anne Lamott to point out. “Perfectionism is always lurking nearby, like the demonic prowling lion in the Old Testament, waiting to pounce. It will convince you that your work-in-progress is not great,” it’ll fog your landscape. So, graduates, don’t forget “to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid… Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.”

That’s inspired advice. How do you reach the “moon”? Visualize yourself on that lunar landscape, and get on with your daily training.

One other thing I want to note this morning: a report from LA that seems to me to vindicate the approach I’ve been taking to my own daily training. “While it may seem counterintuitive to move more when moving hurts, a new study suggests about one hour of walking per day, at an average pace of 100 steps per minute, may be the perfect dose to ward off the debilitating effects of osteoarthritis.”

Not to mention warding off the debilitating effects of directionlessness,  limited vision of a wider landscape, and inadequate preparation for that big juicy creative life. 

In other words: shoot the moon, one day and one small step at a time.


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Ayahuasca, trending

June 17, 2014

“I experienced first a feeling of serene wisdom so that I was quite content to sit there indefinitely.”

Lines like that jump out at me, since I’ve been thinking so pointedly about the relative virtue of motion as against stasis. The speaker in this instance was William S. Burroughs, the crazy old Naked Lunch hipster, writing to Alan Ginsberg about his experience with Ayahuasca. It’s trendy again, apparently. Some say it enhances empathy and emotional intelligence, deepens self-awareness and spirituality, conquers addictions and anxieties, puts mundane life in clear perspective, helps them enjoy life. 

(Others say it “creates an excess of serotonin in the central nervous system, which can cause confusion and tremulousness.”)

I, unlike Burroughs and unlike the new hipsters with their yoga mats and their careful preparations,  am content to sit here ’til the coffee’s gone or the sun is atop the treeline. But to sit anywhere indefinitely is not in my book a mark of wisdom or serenity. It’s more like Calvin’s botched version of the Serenity Prayer.

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As a pragmatist about the pursuit of happiness, and a devotee of personal liberty, I would never interfere with anyone’s self-regarding right to go adventuring in place with Ayahuasca. But to the guy whose trip taught him that “everything written on paper is a lie” I say: don’t believe everything you think. Or dream.

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