Archive for September, 2015

Stay human

September 30, 2015

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation found its way into the conversation yesterday, both in CoPhi and Happiness. What’s special about face-to-face encounters? Why didn’t Boethius just write up his Consolation as a soliloquy? Isn’t texting and tweeting a lot more like talking to yourself than to another, even another you’ve invented or hallucinated? Is all this screen-time really making us happier?

Jonathan Franzen (whose Purity I can already recommend, four chapters in) features lots of conversation. He reviews Turkle:

When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins… And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed… children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.

I knew that. We’ve been carving away all semester, and I’ve begun calling out students when I notice them checking out of our conversations in class. It makes us all uncomfortable. Good.


We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

That’s the nub of it. Empathy, fellow-feeling, openness, spontaneity, depth seem threatened by our newfound excess of mediated distraction. It’s a big price to pay for an end to boredom.

And the threat to happiness is bigger still. Those Alan Watts tweets about washing this dish, taking this step, are on target. (Ironically, yes.)  “Unitasking,” Turkle calls it. It might just be the medicine we need.

One start toward reclaiming conversation is to reclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.

But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.

A human way. As Colbert keeps saying: stay human.

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If you’re happy and you know it

September 29, 2015

In Happiness today we’ll note Frederic Lenoir’s sensible concession, countering an earlier invitation to be “happy every moment,” that that no one is happy all the time. That’s more reasonable. But, maybe a zen form of the broader ambition can be salvaged with just a bit of attentive adjustment. Alan Watts, who lives timelessly on in cyberspace as insinuated by the film Her, puts it smartly:

Dispelling dread isn’t a matter of trying to forget about washing dishes.

 9h9 hours ago9 hours ago It is realizing that in actual fact you only have one dish to wash, ever: this one; only one step to take, ever: this one. And that is Zen. 

And is that happiness?

It might be interesting to funnel all of our discussion questions today through the “one dish” filter, and ask what would Alan say?

  • Can you confirm the claim that we always recur to our happiness set-point? Have you experienced unsustained highs or lows? Do you think you’ve raised your personal set-point, over the course of your life? Are you working to do so?
  • Do you anticipate a “mellow” future? Do you dread the prospect of senescence?
  • Are we really “visceral egoists”? And isn’t it an error to include Adam Smith (as opposed to some free-marketeers who think they’re following him) as one of these? (“There is nothing is Adam Smith to support a ‘greed is good’ mentality,”write Solomon & Higgins.) Are you an altruist?
  • Have you personally experienced the phenomenon of (un-)happy contagion?
  • If schaudenfreude can be explained in evolutionary terms, can cooperation and the spirit of mutual support be similarly explained?

In actual fact we only have one question to answer, the one Lenoir finds frequently annoying: “Are you happy?”

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September 28, 2015

The most interesting thing to me about today’s CoPhi subject, Boethius, is that he could find any “consolation” at all in “Philosophy’s” theodicy. His Comfort Woman convinced him of the divine necessity of his own brutal sacrifice, for the greater good – or Good, in the Platonic perfectionist sense. He had to accept the notion that some must give all, in an unjust and irreparable cause, and moreover that this is part of a perfect plan. I don’t think I could do that, though it surely would make those last hours pass more peaceably. (Of course there’s also the objection that it probably isn’t true.)

It’s difficult not to take Boethius more as a late Stoic (his anti-Stoical protestations notwithstanding) than an early Christian. He doesn’t brandish the latter identity at all in his final testament, as might have been expected of one whose time on earth is nearly up. If he anticipated waking, post-torture, in a personal heaven, he didn’t let on. “Consolation of Philosophy makes references solely to ancient Greeks and Romans – not a single Christian author or figure appears in it, not even Jesus.” (The Cave and the Light)

Bertrand Russell could not “think of any European man of learning so free from superstition and fanaticism… He would have been remarkable in any age; in the age in which he lived, he is utterly amazing.”

The other thing especially noteworthy about Boethius is his focus, right to the end, on human happiness as the point of existence, a form of divinity in which all may participate. As Russell notes, that almost sounds pantheistic. Lots of things had to be glozed over, about Boethius, to turn him into a Christian martyr.

But he’s still an admirable figure, more admirable even than his big fan Ignatius J. Reilly realized.

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“My first act”

September 25, 2015

Yesterday’s CoPhi topic, free will, blended pretty seamlessly into the “molecules of emotion” in Happiness. I posed a question as to whether our ease and familiarity with the language of chemical contentment – dopamine, serotonin, oxytociun, re-uptake inhibitors and the like – didn’t signal some sort of surrender to a model of mind that wouldn’t sustain belief in free will.

Does it bother you to think of your happiness being governed by the “molecules of emotion”? Is this an objectionably reductive way of understanding subjectivity and the mind, or merely a strategically useful handle on one’s state of well-being? Does it over-objectify experience, or imply a deterministic worldview at odds with your notion of free will?

I couldn’t find anyone who admitted to any unease of this sort, or who really even understood the question. That might indicate excessive and misplaced concern on my part. Or, it might just be a feather in the cap of neuroscience, and more evidence of its success in planting a paradigm of inhospitality to indeterminism.

Turning to a less abstract approach, I solicited practical advice for how to trip those happy-making molecules at will, as it were. We must believe that, at least, to be a reasonable aspiration. Why else study the conditions of happiness, if not to learn their application in everyday life? What other “inner work” could we be talking about, when we talk about choosing happiness?

No one really came up with anything much beyond pharmacology, which again reinforces the model of mind I find problematically reductive. So we moved on to discuss “rumination” and how it differs from healthy reflection. We chewed on that, most of us, while ambling about campus in the rays of late afternoon: always the best medicine.

The key, it seems to me, remains the old concept of attention. When William James “just about touched bottom,” then pulled himself up by his and Charles Renouvier’s bootstraps, he was at full attention.

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” 

Is free will an illusion? I too assume it need not be. But let’s assume the choice is yours.

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Choosing free will

September 24, 2015

More in class today on free will. Augustine’s theological commitment to the concept is one hook, neuroscience is another. “Our brains take decisions before our minds are aware of them,” reports the BBC podcast I’ve asked students to consider.

“But there’s evidence that whether or not we have free will, believing in it is good for us.” Some experiments support the claim that those who believe in free will, and act on that belief, are by various measures happier, healthier, more conscientious and ethically responsible, less liable to cheat, steal, and lie.

The “happier” claim is most arresting, or it will be for us in Happiness class this afternoon. William James, in his books but more impressively in the totality of his post-free will crisis lifetime, supports it too. One day he “just about touched bottom,” the next he resolved that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,” and in subsequent decades he certainly seemed to find pragmatic vindication for the concept. In his own terms, he found it better for him to believe in free will. Far better. That’s not proof, but neither is it irrelevant or illusory.

But is it an adequate answer to Gregg Caruso’s contention (and Sam Harris’s) that as a society we would be better off giving it up, even if some individuals like James would not be? Caruso:

I maintain that life without free will may actually be good for our well being, and our relationships with others, since it could tend to eradicate an often destructive form of moral anger, a kind of moral anger that’s corrosive to our relationships and to our social policies…

We need to acknowledge the role that luck plays in our lives, who we are, and how we turn out… Let’s give up the belief in free will, and with it, the pernicious belief in just-deserts, that people justly deserve what they get. Let’s leave this adequate notion behind, lose our moral anger and stop blaming the victim. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the difficult task of addressing the causes that lead to criminality, to wealth inequity, and educational inequity. Once we relinquish the belief in free will, this will allow us to look more clearly at the causes and more deeply at the systems that shape individuals and their behavior, and this will allow us to adopt more humane and more effective policies in education, criminal justice, and social policies.

 Sounds great. It might be the right choice, if we have one. But I don’t think it would have got William James up off the floor, when he touched bottom. I’m not sure it would have got me up out of bed this morning at 5 am. I choose to suspend final judgment on this issue. Or think I do.

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A passion for truth

September 23, 2015

That last Discussion Question is the one that really got us going in Happiness class yesterday, the one about whether religion or spirituality add years to one’s life – seven years, specifically, according to the cited study… presumably seven quality years, my quip about the mitigating effects of all those hours lost in Sunday School notwithstanding.

I said I was prepared to believe it, so long as we understand “spirituality” inclusively and naturalistically. There is such a thing as humanist, secular, and atheistic spirituality, and if the point is to believe in something larger than oneself (not necessarily a god, possibly just people, the planet, or the starry heavens above) then godless spirituality should qualify for the Life-Extension dividend too. As Andre Comte-Sponville says, experience and a universe should suffice if anything does.

Not surprisingly, in the ensuing discussion the name of Professor Dawkins quickly came up. He was alleged to have denied, in The God Delusion, that there is any objective truth or goodness in the universe. I didn’t recall him saying that, but if he did (I said) he misspoke.

But on further reflection, I can’t imagine him writing that. Or even implying it. Say what you will about RD’s polemically provocative style and tendency to shoot from the hip, expressing ill-formed judgments about women (recall his many dust-ups over others’ feminist sensibilities), boys (the young clock-maker in Texas), “faithheads,” etc., it must be acknowledged that the man is passionate for truth. In fact, he has apologized (sorta) for precisely that: “Sorry if I go a bit over the top in my passion for truth.”

In God Delusion he wrote,

when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal force, the truth does not necessarily lie midway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong. And that justifies passion on the other side.

A passion for truth is nothing to apologize for. Intemperance, incivility, and insult in its name may be. That’s why I’m toying with the idea of trying out an improvised version of John Rawls’ “Original Position” thought experiment in next semester’s Atheism & Philosophy course. I’d ask everyone to don the “veil of ignorance” as to their own (ir-)religious attitudes and beliefs, and just join a civil conversation about atheism and concepts of an afterlife without so much demonstrative personal investment in their own preconceptions. At the end we’d raise the veil and evaluate our performance not in the light of who we are individually, but how much kinder and gentler we might be as a collaborative community in passionate pursuit of truth.

Yes, I know, I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.
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Stoic spirituality

September 22, 2015

Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” is so full of practical wisdom and, for those in my line of work, positive reinforcement:

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only… We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters?

I wouldn’t put it in terms of “surrender” to the past, though. We study the old dead philosophers because the best that’s been thought, said, and written better prepares us to meet present and future with equanimity and intention. For instance…

Before class yesterday my wife texted that a friend and her family had been involved in a serious automobile accident in Florda, with the little girls suffering serious injury. “I’m very upset.” What would a Stoic say? Popular caricature suggests a cold and inhumane response like “Don’t be upset. An emotional reaction changes nothing…” etc.

But the more time I spend reading and reflecting on the old Stoic texts, the less I think that’s what Seneca and his school would say. Theirs would be a more measured judgment: “Your upset is understandable, and natural for our kind. Our humanity is a hybrid of reasoned reflection and feeling, we must allow both their due. Acknowledge your emotions, register their practical instruction, and move forward.” Something like that.

Similar issues arise in Happiness this afternoon, when we’ll wonder about the extent to which it may be possible for persons to do the “internal work” of Stoic adjustment required for hybrid happiness. And, an aside in our reading today has caught my attention, the claim that religious/spiritual people add years to their lives. I’m prepared to believe that, if “spiritual” is construed in its full and natural signification. Andre Comte-Sponville:

The universe is our home; the celestial vault is our horizon; eternity is here and now. This moves me far more than the Bible or the Koran. It astonishes me far more than miracles (if I believed in them). Compared to the universe, walking on water is a cinch!

Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices. Atheist Spirituality

The Stoics entertained a range of religious views, but “experience suffices” pretty much captures what they had to tell us of our hybrid nature. Sufficit.

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Seize the weekend

September 21, 2015

Great outdoorsy weekend, highlighted by our discovery of a long new leg of Greenway connecting Warner Parks to Bellevue. How long’s it been open, and why hadn’t anyone told me!? Younger Daughter proposed that outing, her first voluntary recreational bikeride in recent memory but, she promises, not her last. What an easy escape, pedaling past baled fields and ball fields and rivers and woods, and an exorbitantly expensive private school, right up to the Horse Farm where she once had riding lessons. Simple pleasures are best, especially when seized spontaneously. Carpe diem isn’t always grandly heroic, sometimes it’s just  a Saturday in the park.

Or the beer garden. I was so inspired, I went and joined the Tailgate mug club. They have a sundown beer garden site (they call it a “barn”) well worth the price. Carpe cervisia.

And then yesterday, so mildly autumnal I never had to set foot in the house all afternoon. Did set foot in the pool, with slightly less enthusiasm than Saturday. Approaching each submersion now as potentially the last.

When I was a younger person myself, I was very little attuned to the elements and the seasons. How many beautiful Fall days of yore did I squander indoors, watching televised games I really could care less about, thinking I had all the time in the world before me? How many quality hammock hours did I miss? Too many. “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” Doing my best to compensate now.

We turn to the Stoics in CoPhi today. Old Seneca had it right, our problem is not a paucity of time but a failure to make the most of the time we do have. “The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” Life is short, but the days can still be long if we know how to use them.

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September 18, 2015

Interesting Happiness discussions yesterday, addressing our text’s assertion that “illusory happiness does not interest us.” Frederic Lenoir’s point is that philosophers are truth-seekers, unwilling to swap “lucidity” for happiness, uninterested in becoming Voltaire’s “happy idiots.”

Yes, we agreed, but… what do you mean, “we”? We are knee-deep in the age of virtual reality, entertainment/ “reality” programming, sports fanaticism, and just generally the fuzzing-up of any boldly-drawn line between what’s real and what’s fabricated.

For that matter, ever since our “idiot” ancestors started scratching images on cave walls we’ve been telling stories. That’s virtual reality too.

I found myself invoking old Captain Pike (didn’t even have to mention the Next Generation’s holodeck): “You have reality, he has his illusion. We’ll see who has the better fate.” (That’s how I’m remembering it, it’s been awhile. I’ll see if I can fact-check that one.) [UPDATE: “Captain Pike has an illusion and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant.”]

Then there’s the Matrix, the Experience Machine… and as one of us pointed out, you don’t even have to invoke sci-fi to see how rapidly we’re running up on non-fictional forms of VR. Ocular something-or-other (What exactly did you call it, Damon?) has already arrived in the brave new world of illusion-for-sale.

[UPDATE: “Oculus Rift,” “next-gen VR,” “the magic of presence”…

“There’s no evidence that this is causing damage to your health.” But what might it do to your “lucidity,” let alone your curb appeal?]

I’ll look into details. There are more than a couple of happy illusions I’d pay for right now. For one thing, I’d like to awaken from the nightmare of the GOP political campaign. Or sleep it off.

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Time out

September 17, 2015

It was a different kind of day at school, yesterday.

Arriving on campus I headed not to the office but instead straight to a colleague’s speaking appearance at the Student Union, conducted by a colleague. He was speaking on a bioethical theme, wondering about the future of intelligent machines and how we’ll relate to them. Fascinating to think we may one day have to parse the autonomy and ethical standing of our own creations.

En route to the talk I was intercepted by my favorite student Research Assistant, who says I’m the only teacher she knows who takes classes outdoors on these beautiful Fall days. That’s one good reason to continue pushing the peripatetic approach. We’ve become sedentary strangers to the sky. We need to look up and take our bearings, chart our path by the clouds and the stars, place our small indoor lives in proper perspective.

And we did, again, in CoPhi. But our time was shorter yesterday because we convened at the library, for a tutorial on research. Good information from my friend David on how to make the most of the Philosophers Index, Google Scholar, and the like, before my crash course on Pyrrho and Epicurus.

When discussion time finally came, we spilled out into the late afternoon sunshine and took a couple slow laps around to Science courtyard pondering the ultimate Epicurean question: is death anything to fear?

As always, interesting and unexpected things were said. And conventional, boring things. Wheat and chaff are separable, but it takes time.

That’s the big Epicurean message, isn’t it? Time is of the essence. The good life takes time. Take time for happiness. No time like the present. The time to live is now. Our ground-time here is brief. Time’s a’wastin’. We’re almost out of time, it’ll soon be time to go.

So, take a breath, relax, enjoy the time you’ve got.

Time’s up.

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