Archive for February, 2015

What is my purpose?

February 27, 2015

Exam and report day yesterday, and all of them were good: Vaccination (and its discontents) in Bioethics, Comic Philosophy, Socrates/Plato, Thomas More, God, and “Playing God” in SciFi in CoPhi… That last one reminded me of this:

But who would ever confuse that blue and gray guy with God? Anyway, butter is good. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

My purpose, in any case, is to continue teasing out strong and thoughtful reports on varieties of topics from bright and purposive young people. First, though, a trip up the old cold river to take in the Big Muddy and support Older Daughter (who helped organize it) in her fledgling foray into the world of independent film. 

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Machiavelli & civil disobedience

February 24, 2015
Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli (and Hobbes, coming next) knew it, a world full of testimonial injustice. Not to mention intrigue, plot, war, and violence. The more things change…

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. The intended implication of “manly” is not so much machismo as hu-manity, with a twist. Machiavelli’s manly prince judiciously wields and conceals the guile of the fox and the brutality of the lion, all the while brandishing an image of kindhearted wisdom. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says. But Skinner and others think he’s gotten a bad name unfairly. (See videos below.)
A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of FortuneOne of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes & Villains. Room for one more?

I’m a bit puzzled by the sentimental fondness some seem to feel for “machiavellian” politicians. Haven’t we had enough of those? Wouldn’t we rather be led by Ciceronians and Senecans and Roosevelts, evincing qualities of compassion and (relative) transparency? Don’t we wish them to affirm and work for the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor’s great post-White House achievememt?

But, Bertie Russell agrees that Machiavelli has been ill-served by invidious judgments that assimilate him to our time’s conventions and accordingly find him objectionable, instead of appreciating his fitness to live and serve in his own day. Russell praises his lack of “humbug.” Give the devil his due.

“I never say what I believe and I never believe what I say,” declared Machiavelli. “If I sometimes say the truth, I conceal it among lies”… more»

  1. Text to Text | ‘The Prince’ and ‘Why Machiavelli Still Matters 

    The political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” as a manual on leadership and governing during the late Italian Renaissance, …
  2. In Tuscany, Following the Rise and Fall of Machiavelli

    Five centuries after “The Prince” was written, visiting spots in and around Florence that track the arc of Machiavelli’s life.

Arthur Herman makes the case for assigning Machiavelli to Team Aristotle.

Looking for a firm modern presidential declaration of anti-Machiavellian sentiment? Jimmy Carter said: “A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It is a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity.”

We’re talking civil disobedience too, today. Again Nigel slights the Yanks, in not mentioningThoreau“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”  And,

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

So, here’s my Discussion Question today: Have you ever engaged in an act of deliberate law-breaking, in order to challenge what you considered an unjust law? Are there circumstances in which you would do so? Would you risk arrest on behalf of social justice, climate change, or anything else? Will you at least support those who do? Are you a compliantist, a gradualist, or a transgressive reformer?

Russell, incidentally, himself a civil disobedient in the great tradition of Socrates, Gandhi, King, et al – (“On April 15 1961, at the age of 89, Bertrand Russell gave a speech calling for non-violent civil disobedience in his campaign for British unilateralism, i.e. to get Britain to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons and membership in NATO”) –  gives Thoreau only passing attention as an American representative of the romantic movement of the 19th century.

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Anselm, Aquinas, & politics

February 19, 2015

It’s more Saints today in CoPhi, and more Harvards: Anselm & Aquinas (with commentary on the latter from Anthony Kenny), Robert Nozick and political philosophy. Inexplicably, our politics chapter omits discussion of the most important political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls. We’ll rectify that in class.

Anselm stumped for the divine moral perfection (and omnipotence and omniscience) of a being “than which none greater could be conceived.” His Ontological Argumentis either ingenious or ridiculous, depending on who you ask. But it rarely persuades those who do not come at it armed with antecedent faith. “Faith seeking understanding,” or maybe just the appearance of rational cover.

Anselm considers reason subordinate to faith. ‘I believe in order to understand,’ he says; following Augustine, he holds that without belief it is impossible to understand. God, he says, is not just… St Anselm, like his predecessors in Christian philosophy, is in the Platonic rather than the Aristotelian tradition. For this reason, he has not the distinctive characteristics of the philosophy which is called “scholastic,” which culminated in Thomas Aquinas. Russell

In the time of Aquinas, the battle for Aristotle, as against Plato, still had to be fought. The influence of Aquinas secured the victory [for Aristotle] until the Renaissance; then Plato, who became better known than in the Middle Ages, again aquired supremacy… Russell

 Indeed, “Aquinas fully endorsed Aristotle…” (Cave & Light)

 Aquinas was sure there had to be an uncaused cause in back of everything, or else we’d never get to an end of explaining. Well, we probably won’t. Not ’til the would-be explainers themselves are gone. But is an uncaused cause really a step forward, explanatorily speaking?

Both of those guys were committed, of course, to belief in a heavenly afterlife. Samuel Scheffler, in the Stone recently, wrote of the afterlife here. Here, of course, is where people live the lives their beliefs inform. Life, not god or supernaturalism, is the natural impulse behind religion. Dewey’s continuous human community is another way of naming nature’s afterlife.
But what if you learned that the species would expire within a month of your own passing? That’s Scheffler’s thought experiment. He thinks he and we would be profoundly unsettled, that life would suffer an instant meaning collapse, and that this shows how invested we all are in a natural afterlife for humans (though not each of us in particular) on earth. He thinks “the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.” That’s what he means when he begins his essay: “I believe in life after death.”
He also explained his view on Philosophy Bites.
Our old dead Italian Saints said nothing about this, so far as I’m aware. Anthony Kenny does say Aquinas still agreed with Aristotle about “the best way to spend your lifetime down here on Earth,” that happiness is ultimately an activity rather than a feeling, and that “the supreme happiness for rational beings was an intellectual activity.” To Aristotle’s standard “pagan virtues” he added faith (in Christian revelation), hope (for heavenly ascent), and charity (toward god and neighbor).
But the charity he seems to admire most in Aquinas is of the intellectual variety, “always trying to balance arguments from both sides” and treat those whose conclusions he disputes with civility.

Neither of today’s 20th century Harvard philosophers was a Saint, but both were civil.
Robert Nozick began his academic career as a narrow analyst and wunderkind libertarian, but evolved well beyond his starting place. He came to realize that astringent libertarianism neglects “the reality of our social solidarity and humane concern for others.” He came also to the view that “thinking about life is more like mulling it over” than like pinning it with a syllogism. “It feels like growing up more.” He kept growing, ’til stomach cancer took him at age 63.

Nozick’s chapter on dying in The Examined Life begins,

THEY SAY NO ONE is able to take seriously the possibility of his or her own death, but this does not get it exactly right. (Does everyone take seriously the possibility of his or her own life?) A person’s own death does become real to him after the death of both parents.

He’s right about that, in my experience.

Before his death (as Yogi Berra might have said) Nozick gave us the good oldExperience Machine. We just talked about this the other day. Here’s a Yalie to talk about it too.

John Rawls, says Carlin Romano, wrote “the most important book of English-language political theory since Mill’s On Liberty. His goal was a coherent theory of “justice as fairness” whose appeal would span the spectrum, after emerging from behind a “Veil of Ignorance.” Not everyone buys it, but we all talk about it. Michael Sandel does too, to a much bigger class than ours, albeit mostly virtual & MOOCy.

And now there’s a musical stage show. How many political philosophers can say that?! Rawls@dawn

Also a propos of politics, happily included in our chapter today: historicity, Kantian respect, egalitarianism, libertarianism, affirmative action (“reverse discrimination”), the Marxist critique of sham democracy, and paradoxes of conscience. Plenty, as usual, on our plates.

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Boethius & Bentham & animal rights

February 17, 2015
Today in CoPhi it’s the pagan/stoic/Christian/Platonist martyr Boethius, and then the rights of animals. 

We saw last time that Bertrand Russell had little regard for how Augustine, despite his philosophical sophistication when it came to hard-nut conceptual problems like time, ironically squandered much of his own on a preoccupation with sin, chastity, and staying out of hell.

Russell liked Boethius, or aspects of his thought at least. Boethius was also perplexed by time, and initially unimpressed by the alleged capacity of timeless divinity to accommodate both omniscience and free will. Like Russell, I’m struck by this “singular” thinker’s ability to contemplate happiness (he thought all genuinely happy people are gods) while practically darkening death’s door.

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s foreknowledge of everything, including the fact that Boethius himself (among too many others) would be unjustly imprisoned and tortured to death, in no way impaired his (Boethius’s) freedom or god’s perfection. Consoled. Comforted.Calmed. Reconciled.

That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body (one thing, not two). But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.

And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. [Russell] The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

For those keeping score, add Boethius to Aristotle’s column.

[Christians 2, Philosophers 0… Christians & MuslimsJandMoandPaulMystics, scholastics, Ferengi… faith & reason…]

And now, for something completely different: animals. Not very many philosophers of note have denied that animals are capable of feeling pain. But Descartes did.

“Speciesism” is generally understood to to convey a pejorative connotation, but I went on record a long time ago as a species of speciesist. A pragmatist is bound to give priority to human interests, but an animal-loving pragmatist will always urge the rejection of allowing them to run roughshod over our furry fellow travelers whose planet it also is. Still, if animal research will save human lives I’m going to cast my vote in favor.

[Full movie]

Kant’s view that harming animals is wrong because it damages OUR character and relationships, however, is too speciesist for my blood.

I’m happy our text gives me another opportunity to put in a word for quirky old Jeremy Bentham, who rightly noted that pain and suffering know no species bounds. [Animal Rights… A Utilitarian View] Other critters don’t process it with the magnifying  human sort of emotional complexity, nor do they typically bear any detectably solicitous mutual regard of the human kind (though some primates and puppies do display what we’re bound to anthropomorphize as tenderness and affection). But that doesn’t make them robots.

Happily, Jeremy’s now feeling no pain.

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Augustine & string theory

February 12, 2015
Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one, behind the wheel with with Moses…
..and with “Free Willy.” But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.

(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed, or the sea-parter Moses; and neither I nor Salman Rushdie, the Dutch cartoonists, the anonymous Author, or anyone else commenting on religion in fictional media are blasphemers. We’re all just observers exercising our “god-given” right of free speech, which of course extends no further than the end of a fist and the tip of a nose. We’ll be celebrating precisely that, and academic freedom, when we line up to take turns reading the Constitution this morning.

No, they’re just a trio of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless provocation, and fun.  But if it makes us think, it’s useful.)

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP

And of course he believed in hell, raising the stakes for heaven and the judicious free will  he thought necessary to get there even higher. If there’s no such thing as free will, though, how can you do “whatever the hell you want”?  But, imagine there’s no heaven or hell. What then? Some of us think that’s when free will becomes most useful to members of a growing, responsible species.

Someone posted the complaint on our class message board that it’s not clear what “evil” means, in the context of our Little History discussion of Augustine. But I think this is clear enough: “there is a great deal of suffering in the world,” some of it proximally caused by crazy, immoral/amoral, armed and dangerous humans behaving badly, much more of it caused by earthquakes, disease, and other “natural” causes. All of it, on the theistic hypothesis, is part and parcel of divinely-ordered nature.

Whether or not some suffering is ultimately beneficial, character-building, etc., and from whatever causes, “evil” means the suffering that seems gratuitously destructive of innocent lives. Some of us “can’t blink the evil out of sight,” in William James’s words, and thus can’t go in for theistic (or other) schemes of “vicarious salvation.” We think it’s the responsibility of humans to use their free will (or whatever you prefer to call ameliorative volitional action) to reduce the world’s evil and suffering. Take a sad song and make it better.

Note the Manichaean strain in Augustine, and the idea that “evil comes from the body.” That’s straight out of Plato. The world of Form and the world of perfect heavenly salvation thus seem to converge. If you don’t think “body” is inherently evil, if in fact you think material existence is pretty cool (especially considering the alternative), this view is probably not for you. Nor if you can’t make sense of Original Sin, that most “difficult” contrivance of the theology shop.

“Augustine had felt the hidden corrosive effect of Adam’s Fall, like the worm in the apple, firsthand,” reminds Arthur Herman. His prayer for personal virtue “but not yet” sounds funny but was a cry of desperation and fear.

Like Aristotle, Augustine believed that the quality of life we lead depends on the choices we make. The tragedy is that left to our own devices – and contrary to Aristotle – most of those choices will be wrong. There can be no true morality without faith and no faith without the presence of God. The Cave and the Light

Bertrand Russell, we know, was not a Christian. But he was a bit of a fan of Augustine the philosopher (as distinct from the theologian), on problems like time.

As for Augustine the theologian and Saint-in-training, Russell’s pen drips disdain.
It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants.

Funny, how the preachers of the merit of virginity so often come late – after exhausting their stores of wild oats – to their chaste piety. Not exactly paragons of virtue or character, these Johnnys Come Lately. On the other hand, it’s possible to profess a faith you don’t understand much too soon. My own early Sunday School advisers pressured and frightened me into “going forward” at age 6, lest I “die before I wake” one night and join the legions of the damned.

That’s an allusive segue to today’s additional discussion of Aristotelian virtue ethics, in its turn connected with the contradictions inherent in the quest to bend invariably towards Commandments. “Love your neighbor”: must that mean, let your neighbor suffer a debilitating terminal illness you could pull the plug on? Or is the “Christian” course, sometimes, to put an end to it?

We also read today of Hume’s Law, Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy, the old fact/value debate. Sam Harris is one of the most recent controversialists to weigh in on the issue, arguing that “good” means supportive of human well-being and flourishing, which are in turn based on solid facts. “The answer to the question, ‘What should I believe, and why should I believe it?’ is generally a scientific one…”  Brain Science and Human Values

Also: ethical relativism, meta-ethics, and more. And maybe we’ll have time to squeeze in consideration of the perennial good-versus-evil trope. Would there be anything “wrong” with a world in which good was already triumphant, happiness for all already secured, kindness and compassion unrivaled by hatred and cruelty? I think it might be just fine. Worth a try, anyway. Where can I vote for that?

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Stoics & ethics

February 10, 2015
It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in Little History today in CoPhi, on the Stoics EpictetusCicero, and Seneca. We’re also looking at the first half of our chapter on Right & Wrong, concerned mainly with deontologists and utilitarians. (They’re bumping last year’s complementary discussion of Stoics & Pragmatists.)
 ’Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life. 
‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch. 
Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t. [The Philosophy of Calm, Ph’er Mail]
Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment. 
Epictetus [don’t confuse him with his predecessor Epicurus] started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience. [Tom Wolfe’s Epictetus, nyt]

The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca. 

Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn’t worry in any event.]
For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have. 

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” Maria Popova, Brainpickings 

The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions. 
[“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“… Seneca on anger (de Botton)… (The Shortness of Life: Seneca on the Art of Living Well Rather Than Living Long – Brainpickings) The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long
The New Yorker (@NewYorker)
Seneca’s plays were gore-fests. His wealth was vast. He counselled tyrants. And he called himself a Stoic?

But Nigel Warburton‘s question is right on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all. On the other hand, Stoicism is widely misunderstood – even by Vulcans.

Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.

And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

Stoicism, with its general mindset of not allowing oneself to be moved or harmed by externals beyond one’s control, and the crucial assumption that our own thoughts are ours to manage, always courts the cold of Vulcan indifference but also offers the last line of defense for prisoners of war and victims of malice. If you really can persuade yourself that physical pain is nothing to you, that emotional stress can’t touch you, that’s quite a defensive weapon.

And if Stoicism can turn the chill of age into the warmth of experience, friendship, and joyous memory, that’s quite an achievement. The older I get, the more I appreciate old Seneca’s wisdom about time (not that it’s in such short supply but that we’re such bad managers of it). But I continue to question his passive compliance with crazy Nero. Is that Stoicism or impotent resignation? Surely there’s a difference.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is on our plate today. “Is the pious or holy [or, ethically speaking, the right or the good]  beloved by the gods because it is holy [right. good], or holy (etc.) because it is beloved?” Euthyphro didn’t grasp the issue. Do we? Either God’s not the source of good, or good’s good only nominally and arbitrarily. Nigel implies there’s something destructive or Hobson-ish about this choice, but isn’t it just blindingly clear that pole A is the one to grab? Well no, it won’t be to many students. A good discussion is called for.

“Deontology,” a scary word for a scary over-devotion to “duty.” Or so I’ll say, today.

And, time permitting, I’ll put in some good words for both Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill’s respective versions of consequentialist utilitarian hedonism. Let’s not choose, let’s pick cherries.

Finally, the bonus topic: Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. Fire it up, we’ll see if anybody really wants to step inside.

I’m “flipping” my classes these days, which practically means less of my “content” explicated during the precious minutes of classtime (though it’s still right here for the taking, as always) and more group discussion. I like my DQs today, especially Do you think the only thing preventing you from being good is the fear of divine retribution for being bad? Or do you think that to be good one must simply believe in goodness and reciprocity (“Do unto others” etc.)? 

In other words, Julia Sweeney, Why aren’t the godless all “rushing out and murdering people”?

And, Is it better to be a sad but wise Socrates than to be a happy but ignorant fool?

Don’t worry, be happy is not too far off the path of wisdom,  is it? 

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Forget enhanced memory

February 9, 2015

Tomorrow’s Bioethics class will have to be a bit foreshortened, I’ve just been invited to speak with MTSU’s Student National Medical Association (SNMA) chapter at 5:30 (Student Union room 224). Last time I visited them, on the last class date of the Fall ’13 semester, the pizza-to-student ratio was impressive.

Last-minute invitations are good in one way: they offer no opportunity to over-prepare.I’ll probably just tell them what we’ve been doing in the Bioethics class so far, what we’ll do next, and what it all has to do with the MCAT’s new emphasis on the social (“sociological”) and psychological dimensions of medical practice.
We wrap up our reading and discussion of Bioethics: The Basics with ch.6 on justice. I’m particularly interested in this chapter’s discussion of vaccination/immunization, immersed as I am at the moment in Seth Mnookin’s Panic Virus.

We’ll be explicitly tackling this issue more intensively when we get to Eula Biss’s book:

“If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity.”

But first, to follow up on last time’s discussion of “enhancement” and to anticipate next time’s commencement of Michael Sandel’s Case Against Perfection: over the weekend I saw a chilling fictional representation of how future mental/cognitive enhancements might lead to dystopia. It was episode three of the British series “Black Mirror,” in which everyone is equipped with an implant called a “grain” – it’s kind of a subcutaneous Google Glass, with instant access to one’s entire archival memory (and with f/forward and rewind). Tipped by the Times, I’ve joined the bandwagon of latecoming enthusiasts for this show who wonder why we didn’t think of that.

Like most everyone in my demographic these days, I’m prone to complaining about flagging memory. But before I find myself someday tempted to gouge the man in the mirror, I think I’d prefer to go against the grain and just forego the upgrade. Please remind me, if I forget. 

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Building better anti-secular columnists

February 6, 2015

Pyrrho’s skepticism and Epicurus’s fearlessness of gods and mortality fueled fascinating discussions in CoPhi yesterday. So did the latest David Brooks’ column,* which said in part: 

“It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.”

Brooks is right that atheism needs to do for SOME of its adherents what religion does for SOME of its, namely affirm and even “radiate.” In fact, for many of us it already does so.

Brooks is wrong (again), to suggest that secular traditions are weaker than their religious counterparts in this regard. Indeed, they have generated a historical legacy of ethical and spiritual wisdom that is arguably much stronger. Three philosophers have quickly responded in that vein. And a minister has called Brooks on his strange insinuation that there are no skeptics among conscientious religionists.

To the Editor:
Re “Building Better Secularists” (column, Feb. 3):
David Brooks says secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies, while religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.
Secularists don’t have to “build” anything; we can choose moral philosophies from what’s already well tested. If religious people think that their “faith” excuses them from evaluating the duties and taboos handed down to them, they are morally obtuse.
Does Mr. Brooks think that religious people are not “called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions”? Children may be excused for taking it on authority, but not adults.Mr. Brooks writes, “Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him.” We secularists have no need for love of any imaginary being, since there is a bounty of real things in the world to love, and to motivate us: peace, justice, freedom, learning, music, art, science, nature, love and health, for instance.

Our advice: Eliminate the middleman, and love the good stuff that we know is real.
Medford, Mass.
The writer, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is co-author of“Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.”

How presumptuous of David Brooks to instruct us “secularists” on how to live the moral life. We have to build our own moral philosophies? Nonsense. I learned mine from my atheistic parents and from teachers throughout my education (not to mention Aristotle, Kant, Mill and the many other moral philosophers I studied).
We have to reflect on spiritual matters? No, I reflect on the injustices in this world, why so many children in the United States go hungry, and why centuries of violence continue to persist in the name of religion.
In place of the religious spiritual life, we atheists may be enraptured by a Beethoven symphony, moved by the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, enchanted by a Rembrandt portrait. We have to build our own Sabbaths? No, thanks; I’ll spend my secular weekends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attending a New York Philharmonic concert or rereading “A Theory of Justice,” by John Rawls.

The writer is a professor of bioethics in the department of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

To the Editor:
David Brooks says “secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.” He overlooks the persecutions and holy wars that have resulted from communal religious fervor.
As a lifelong secularist, I doubt that the emotion-based communal moralism of religion is really something we secularists should emulate.
Providence, R.I.
The writer is a professor of philosophy at Brown University.

To the Editor:
David Brooks nicely describes the limitations of secularism, but he falls into a common misunderstanding of religion when he says “you either believe in God or you don’t.” But religion or faith is not that simple. God is not some idea that you believe is either true or false. Faith is not so coldly rational.
Doubt is a central aspect of faith. Yes, I believe in God, but I can never be certain. By suggesting that you either believe or not, Mr. Brooks accepts a fundamentalist view of religion. Doubters need not be secularists: Religious communities welcome them — indeed, we need them.
Highland Park, Ill.
The writer is a Mennonite minister.


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Pyrrho, Epicurus, & God again

February 5, 2015

In CoPhi today it’s Pyrrho the deep skeptic,  Epicurus the hedonist (though I’ve indicated *my dissatisfaction with applying that label to him) and seeker of simple pleasures and happiness; and God (subbing this time for the APA).

So, to Pyrrho and Epicurus… but first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.

As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.

Reminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Hecht comments: “This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.

One more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

Bertrand Russell: “
He is said to have maintained that there could never be any rational ground for preferring one course of action to another. In practice, this meant that one conformed to the customs of whatever country one inhabited. A modern disciple would go to church on Sundays and perform the correct genuflexions, but without any of the religious beliefs that are supposed to inspire these actions.” Like Pascal’s Wager, this approach smacks of insincerity. Laziness, too, since it purports to show “the ignorant to be as wise as the reputed men of learning.” What’s a better way? To be curious and hopeful.

The man of science says ‘I think it is so and so but I am not sure.’ The man of intellectual curiosity says ‘I don’t know how it is but I hope to find out. The philosophical Sceptic says ‘nobody knows, and nobody ever can know.’

And as for Epicurus, Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.
For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

(But btw, as for that claim that we can’t just “be happy”: Mr. Tolstoy, subject of yesterday’s bonus quiz question (and Google Doodle), seems to have thought otherwise. The pithiest quote I’ve found from the prolix author of War and Peace: “If you want to be happy, be.”)

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

*Sissela Bok calls Epicurus a hedonist, but that’s only technically correct. Yes, he said pleasure’s at the heart of happiness. But what kind of pleasure?

A happy life is tranquil, simple, loving, and above all free from pain, fear, and suffering, available to all regardless of social status, nationality, or gender. Such a life of pleasure, Epicurus held, would of necessity have to be a virtuous one;

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

We won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:
Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy. 

We’re also finishing the God chapter in Philosophy: The Basics today. We consider Hume on miraclesPascal’s WagerDon Cupitt’s non-realism, faith and fear (and Epicurus again). It’s hard to contest Nigel’s last observation, that some people would rather give up one or more of God’s omni-attributes than give up God, period. But then we’re going to have to ask them: Is your downsized God big enough to create and sustain a cosmos? Heretofore, as the late great Carl Sagan observed, most humans have conceived their gods on a blighted and decidedly non-cosmic scale.

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Inspired by my students

February 4, 2015

A couple of weeks into the Spring semester, I’m pleased to note that students in all my classes have been inspiring me with the quality of their participation. Anyone who tries to tell you that “kids these days” are not serious, reflective, engaged, committed, or concerned, should visit us.

And then there are the “non-traditional” students, typically older and worldly-wise, many back from military service, looking to re-tool and re-charge. They also inspire. Before class yesterday I learned that one of them had made a remarkable life-transformation, with the aid of gastric bypass surgery. He’d made the bold decision not to settle for corporeal imprisonment (he showed me a “before” picture), and today he’s the picture of health and happiness.

After the same class I met the spouse of another, my own age, who wants to commence the formal study of philosophy. I should have mentioned to him Plato’s view that no one is truly qualified to undertake that occupation before the age of fifty. It’s definitely not too late for him to make a new plan.

I understand the spirit of Plato’s observation, and it should definitely buoy the older undergrad; but I disagree with it. I’ve been inspired by my students to realize again that it’s never too early to seek wisdom, nor too late to change direction, improve your life, and make a contribution.

That’s the report the administrators in Cope Hall won’t be asking me for, along with the Unofficial Withdrawal Rosters and other student status (“success”) updates. But it’s the kind of report that really ought to be noted and filed by all of us in higher ed. Our purpose isn’t merely to get them in and out and quickly employed in four years or less, it’s to help them live “the examined life.”

From my vantage, it’s evident that many of them are doing  just that. It’s an inspiration.

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