Archive for November, 2015

Thinking’s for doing

November 30, 2015

We return from Thanksgiving break to lower the curtain on this Fall semester. Our closing questions: Can machines think? What is thinking for?

Alan Turing thought they could, in theory, and eventually would in fact. John Searle thinks there’s more to thinking than processing and reporting information.

And Peter Singer, asking if we’re programmed to think and act precisely as we do or if “reason plays a crucial role in how we live,” thinks thinking is ultimately for “doing the most good we can.”

Can they all be right? I think so.

Nigel Warburton says Singer is Socratic, in his eagerness to pose difficult challenges to our most comfortable ways of thinking and living, to apply ethics and not just talk about it. He presents the possibility of altering our consumerist ethos and embracing a way of life far less self-interested.

Bertrand Russell said the value of philosophy resides in bringing neglected possibilities to the fore, for our reflective and active consideration. He also said, we’ve noted in Happiness, that the happiest people think more about the world than themselves.

What a joy to the world it might be, as shopping season escalates, if we all thought a little more about that and acted accordingly. “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”  All lives matter.

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Family, work, delight

November 24, 2015

Our Russellian topics today, in Happiness, as we near the end of Conquest: family, work, and what he oddly calls “impersonal interests” – I call them personal delights or enthusiasms, “those minor interests which fill [our] leisure and afford relaxation from the tenseness of more serious preoccupations.”

Our avocational interests may seem minor, but they can have a major impact on the quality of our lives and the extent of our happiness, and not just our own. Noticing how others embrace the sources of their own delight is an important step on the road to a deeper empathy, a step away from mutual blindness, hostility, and aggression. Or so I have long contended.

What objects of enthusiasm can imaginably promise so much?
Any we can imagine, and then someóbaseball, say, or the Beatles,
beer, Great Britain, literature, science, science fiction, Monet,
Mozart, Kentucky whiskey, Tennessee walking horses, walking,
running, tilling the soil, raising kids, healing, praying,
meditating, thinking, teaching, learning, and on and on. Whatever
disparate items may show up on anyone’s list (these are a few
that crop up in my own family circle), their crucial essence is
to point at, but not to replicate or make transparent to others’
grasp, the depths of experience and personal significance they
attempt to name. I can tell you that I love baseball, but I
cannot begin to convey precisely why or how or the extent to
which baseball is important for my peculiar ways of experiencing
and living in the world. By the same token your account of the
joys of macramÈ, soccer, or cat-dancing will leave me in the
dark. But it is a darkness rimmed by the glow of a phenomenon we
should all recognize and treasure. Springs of Delight

“Raising kids” is on my list, and Russell said it was on his. But he paints a bleak picture of family life, c.1930. Were relations between parents and children really as unhappy (99%!) as he says they were, with so many demanding and despotically possessive parents, so many rude, disrespectful and churlish children? Expectations must have been very different on both ends, and tough economic times (though they probably wouldn’t have noticed this in the Russell manor) tend to breed generational tension. But still.
Russell’s remarks on women again give some discomfort, especially the claim that women in general have a harder time cultivating “impersonl interests.” But his point that for lots of women the choice to pursue a vocation imposes spousally-unmatched domestic compromises is still relevant, even after the choice for most has become no choice at all. As for the quality of domestic life, and speaking as a former Dad-at-home, the charge that it can make you “fussy and small-minded” may be true to an extent, but it’s definitely not gender-specific. And  “spinsterhood”? Is that still a thing?

I agree with Russell, feeling “part of the stream of life” is for many of us inseparable from family. I don’t agree, though, that “death ends all” for the childless. We can invest ourselves emotionally and tangibly in the future of our species, whether or not our own “germ-plasm” is afloat downstream.

“The production of satisfactory children is a difficult constructive work capable of affording profound satisfaction.” Yes, but don’t take too much credit for the production process – especially if you employ a nurse and nanny. And consider Uncle Albert’s observation: “Being both a father and a teacher I know we can teach our children nothing.”

As for work: I do feel sorry for those whose work does not challenge, who must “prostitute” themselves to corporate “Philistines,” or who simply find themselves devoting long hours to labor that seems Sisyphean at best. But as we’ve noted, he coped and found happiness. We shouldn’t quit either. (But maybe some of us should quit one rock and seek another, they’re not all the same.)
Speaking of Einstein (and Spinoza.. though for me it immediately conjures neither of them, but Sagan instead): Russell is again at his best when he evokes the cosmic perspective, with its appreciation of the calendrical brevity of life and its mind-opening, soul-expanding promise that “if you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you.” With this outlook, when I can manage to muster it, I too am in church and in the spirit of A Free Man’s Worship.

5:40/6:34, 31/59

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Completely normal

November 23, 2015

“Evil comes from a failure to think.” Eichmann in Jerusalem.

That’s the flip-side of the James coin noted in my last two posts, “the intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception.” There’s no contradiction here. The non-thinking level of existence is an emotional respite that recharges intellect and broadens perspective. It actually expands empathy and mental space, as it displaces our default tendency only to see things from our own self-interested point of view.

But the healthy kind of non-thinking is necessarily occasional and temporary. People who never think, never try to imagine the world through another’s gaze, are a danger to us all. And as Hannah Arendt reported from Jerusalem, they’re all too common, ordinary, banal.

Failed vacuum oil salesman Adolf Eichmann’s “incapacity to think, or to think from another person’s point of view,” made him insensitive to the harm he’d done, and makes us cringe to realize the depth of ordinary, unremarked thoughtlessness that surrounds us still. “The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a ‘completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.’”

The feckless American politicians atop the current polls, indiscriminately demonizing immigrants and others, are a pretty banal bunch too. Their partisans don’t read much, or think. They’re almost completely normal.

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November 20, 2015

I used to complain about the conspicuous excess of American automotive consumption as mirrored in the humongous multi-multi-vehice garages attached to most new homes. I still complain about too many gas guzzling SUVs and too much traffic congestion. We wonder about the deep and shallow sources of unhappiness, but we needn’t wonder about the misery of commuter gridlock. It’s real. It takes me 50 minutes to get to school, most days. If I were traveling in the other direction it’d take twice as long. What’s the plural of Sisyphus? I see so many of them behind the wheel, in the other lanes, daily. They don’t look happy.

Still complaining, but not (starting today) about my vehicle’s abode or the sap, grime, frost, and avian excrescence it will no longer greet me with each morning. Yesterday we added a third port, to the carport, and I feel fine.

I feel even better about the prospect of eventually replacing its tenant, the dented but undaunted old Corollla, with a new Leaf. The 2016 model purportedly has a range of 100+ miles, which if true is enough to get me to school and back on a single charge.

This is the kind of thing my younger self wouldn’t have wanted to believe my older self would ever get excited about. Zest looks different, at different stages of life.

We had a good discussion about zest and related themes yesterday in Happiness, including Russell’s “malady of introversion.” A few of us took issue with that formulation, and spoke up for the maligned introvert. Introversion is not self-absorption, it’s not hyper-intellectualism. It’s the quest for a quiet mind.

Russell said, a few chapters back, that a quiet life is essential for happiness. That’s a virtue many extroverts never know. TED has been all over it, especially Susan Cain and Pico Iyer. “In an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.” Sitting still and reflecting can be hard work, but sitting still and not reflecting is an unexamined life.

Once again, I say: sit a bit, but then stand and move. Solvitur ambulando. “Sturdy legs could mean healthy brains.” First finish your coffee. Then, for an hour, turn your attention away from the headlines and the noisy terrorizing world (which after all is still not all-consuming).

You can walk and think at the same time, and you can walk and not think. “The intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception,” is something else the extrovert is liable to miss. You have to be quiet long enough to catch it.

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November 19, 2015

The Fair was fun, we garnered lots of interest and gathered a list of names and email addresses. The big takeaway is a longing to be twenty years old again, and on the other side of the table. After hearing his spiel for four hours I’d happily follow my Italian colleague (whose table adjoined ours) home to Rome and Florence next summer. But my role now is to lead, not follow. Alas.

The balancing act we all must perform, in discharging our roles and authentically appropriating our lives, is one of the big themes in Existentialism. Play the waiter, the obedient son (or impassioned patriot), the socially-constructed man/woman, the student, the professor too proficiently, and you raise the specter of bad faith, self-objectification, and a denial of freedom. But play your role poorly and life loses interest.

Bertrand Russell does double duty today in my classes. In CoPhi we’ll note his progression from a youthful preoccupation with mathematical logic to the statesmanlike public intellectual who did not falter when asked what he’d most like to say to people in a thousand years: “If we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and tolerance that are vital to the continuation of life.” We’d better hear that now, or there won’t be anyone left to hear it in the next millennium.

In Happiness we’re up to the chapters on zest and affection, two of his favorite things. He was a fan of the great Baker Street detective. Who knew?

The forms of zest are innumerable. Sherlock Holmes, it may be remembered, picked up a hat which he happened to find lying in the street. After looking at it for a moment he remarked that its owner had come down in the world as the result of drink, and that his wife was no longer so fond of him as she used to be. Life could never be boring to a man to whom casual objects offered such a wealth of interest.

And then there’s the zesty thrill of a country walk.

One man may be interested in the birds, another in the vegetation, another in the, geology, yet another in the agriculture, and so on. Any one of these things is interesting if it interests you, and, other things being equal, the man who is interested in any one of them is a man better adapted to the world than the man who is not interested.

Russell also notices the intrinsic interest some take in others, as for instance on a train. This reminds me of Whitman on his ferry. The whole discussion reminds me of James’s “Blindness” and “the intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception.” It’s an impressive insight, for such a bright mind. Sadly, I don’t meet enough zesty scholars.

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Existential advice

November 18, 2015

It’s the big Study Abroad fair at our school today, and it’s raining hard. How am I going to keep my tri-fold poster dry and get it into the Student Union? Let’s ask today’s CoPhi subjects.

Jean-Paul Sartre would remind me that I don’t HAVE to. I don’t even have to go. Things don’t have to be the way they are. Thanks, J-P. Not helpful.

Albert Camus would say it’s a trivial and absurd concern, compared to the great question whether life is worth living. Again, not helpful.

Bertrand Russell would tell me to turn my attention to other things, for now. Slightly more helpful.

A.J. Ayer would suggest that we reason together like civilized men, to solve the problem. (As he proposed to Mike Tyson.)

Simone de Beauvoir might say that dry posters are a social construct, but being a woman (if that’s sexist I’m sorry, but in my experience it’s true) I’ll bet she’d actually offer a helpful, practical suggestion like wrapping it in a plastic bag.

Or, after learning about computers and the Internet, she might suggest just doing it digitally.

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Sin, paranoia, and public opinion

November 17, 2015

Older Daughter has an Internet Radio show. I tuned in during my evening commute last night, to hear that although her parents would deny it “until the day they die,” we’d given bad instruction in her childhood when she asked how to tell left from right. “Your right is closest to the shed,” one of us is alleged to have explained. I have no memory of that, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have occurred to me to worry that such a reply might saddle her with a shameful shed-dependence she’d one day confess to strangers. “Do you know how many sides it’s possible to place near the shed? TWO!!” Sorry. There are so many ways a parent can sidetrack a kid, no wonder so many of my students say they’re not going to do it.

I also know, now, how Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson must have felt: sheds are irrelevant, let’s talk about something else!
Okay, how about Russell on sin, paranoia, and public opinion?
In chapter 7 he rightly notes the variability of conscience, which “enjoins different acts in different parts of the world” and shows that local custom, not universal commandments, accounts for the sense of “sin” and guilt. We fear the enmity of the “herd” but call it the wrath of God.

But there are real sins too, Russell says: ruthlessness and “harshness” in business, and cruelty at home, spread real misery and chip away at civilization.
Russell would have been a helpful participant in our class at the Beer Pale the other day, when we were wrestling with Hume’s “reason is the slave of the passions” maxim. 

It is not the business of reason to generate emotions, though it may be part of its function to discover ways of preventing such emotions as are an obstacle to well-being. To find ways of minimizing hatred and envy is no doubt part of the function of a rational psychology. But it is a mistake to suppose that in minimizing these passions we shall at the same time diminish the strength of those passions which reason does not condemn. In passionate love, in parental affecttion, in friendship, in benevolence, in devotion to science or art, there is nothing that reason should wish to diminish.

Isn’t that what Hume really meant to say?

The chapter on paranoia, “persecution mania,” is my least favorite. Russell comes off like Ayn Rand, bashing altruism, saying things like “No person should be expected to distort the main lines of his life for the sake of another individual” and “Very often the conduct that people complain of in others is not more than the healthy reaction of natural egoism.” But to his credit, he tempers the selfish sound of those remarks with a Jamesian caution: “remember that they see life from their own angle and as it touches their own ego, not from your angle and as it touches yours.” Right. Mutual blindness requires ego-correction, not more ego-assertion.

Chapter 9, on the stultifying constriction of public opinion, revisits the theme of tribal miseducation. 

A young man or young woman somehow catches ideas that are in the air, but finds that these ideas are anathema in the particular milieu in which he or she lives. It easily seems to the young as if the only milieu with which they are acquainted were representative of the whole world. They can scarcely believe that in another place or another set the views which they dare not avow for fear of being thought utterly perverse would be accepted as the ordinary commonplaces of the age. Thus through ignorance of the world a great deal of unnecessary misery is endured…

…what was good enough for his father ought to be good enough for him. If he shows any tendency to criticise his parents’ religious tenets or political affiliations, he is likely to find himself in serious trouble. For all these reasons, to most young men and young women of exceptional merit adolescence is a time of great unhappiness.  

The straight-jacketing of youthful imagination can crush the “freedom of spirit in which true happiness consists… our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbours, or even our relations.” 

So, parents and neighbors, be careful what you say about sheds.

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Conquering AT&T

November 10, 2015
Wifi’s down again (!), my thumbs will be brief. (We’re unhappy with you, AT&T, & about ready to quit you once & for all. Not that you’ll notice or care. “Mediation” strikes again.)

Today we turn to Bertrand Russell’s bright, breezy, borderline-sexist “Conquest of Happiness.” What would Bertie say about the ordinary everyday sort of unhappiness a broken Internet connection can cause? “Turn your attention to other things,” probably: 

“The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful be on the point he will contemplate something else instead.” Right.

Good advice, for now. Dumping our provider may have its satisfactions too. 

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Immediacy & humanity

November 9, 2015

Weekend highlights: the eggplant parmesan at Finezza, the first Earth Stove session of the season, the Martian, being interviewed by Younger Daughter for her podcast, on her passion for softball… John Lachs’s plenary address at the Southwestern Philosophical Society in my old stomping grounds, Sarratt Student Center at Vandy…

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My first arts & crafts project in decades, a tri-fold publicity poster for our Study Abroad summer course which I’ll unveil at our booth in the Student Union on the 18th…

When wifi went down last night we broke routine and watched Into Darkness on dvd instead of our usual Sunday fare (Madame Secretary, The Good Wife), to celebrate Trek’s announced return to TV. Boldly go somewhere different, for a change!

The great thing about the Martian is his indomitable will to come home, with a lot of help from his friends.

The great thing about Lachs is his commitment to “transparency and immediacy” as the solution to our great modern affliction, which is also the great extender of our communicative reach: he calls it mediation, in preference to Marxist alienation.

Through computers and satellites and fax machines, mediation opens the distant world. Instant access to all manner of information promises knowledge without limits. The exploits of strangers on the other side of the globe so fill our minds, however, that we fail to examine the meaning of our own acts. Disconnected facts and secondhand reports close our eyes to to direct experience and we lose appreciation for the richness of the immediate. Growing knowledge thus begets ignorance

And rudeness. While dining on that exemplary eggplant we couldn’t help noticing instances of another symptom Lachs had cited, at adjoining tables all around us: couples more engaged in silence with their screens than in conversation with their partners.

So to immediacy and transparency add presence, as necessary correctives to the collective cost of our mediated comfort. And of course, education. One of the commentators, Eric Weber – also one of Lachs’s many old students in attendance – noted that teachers have an opportunity to loosen our mediating chains. The Lachs lecture experience, and especially the post-lecture Q-&-A when this ebullient octogenerian bounds from the lectern into the audience to engage his interlocutors, is a model of immediacy in the vast sea of academic conference banality. Aikin & Talisse are right, presenters who just read their papers, usually without feeling or conviction, need to liven up. That’s always been John Lachs’s great lesson.

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Leaping the abyss

November 6, 2015

Reflecting on yesterday’s Happiness discussion I’m even more irritated by “How to Live a Lie,” William Irwin’s new contribution to the Times Stone series. The headline is bad, the blurb is worse: “We can act as if God, morality and free will exist, even when we are certain they don’t.”

Whether “certain” means dogmatically insistent on, logically convinced by, or temperamentally predisposed towards a given conclusion about god, freedom, or morality (etc.), acting as if only works in the pragmatic sense when belief and action are in accord, not when they contradict one another. And acting on beliefs rooted in one’s temperamant and sensibility but inconclusively supported by coercive evidence is not dishonest, unless the evidence for a competing conclusion is compelling.

 Consider James’s climber:

Suppose, for example, that I am climbing in the Alps, and have had the ill-luck to work myself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Being without similar experience, I have no evidence of my ability to perform it successfully; but hope and confidence in myself make me sure I shall not miss my aim, and nerve my feet to execute what without those subjective emotions would perhaps have been impossible. But suppose that, on the contrary, the emotions of fear and mistrust preponderate; or suppose that, having just read the Ethics of Belief, I feel it would be sinful to act upon an assumption unverified by previous experience,–why, then I shall hesitate so long that at last, exhausted and trembling, and launching myself in a moment of despair, I miss my foothold and roll into the abyss. In this case (and it is one of an immense class) the part of wisdom clearly is to believe what one desires; for the belief is one of the indispensable preliminary conditions of the realization of its object. _There are then cases where faith creates its own verification_. Believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself; doubt, and you shall again be right, for you shall perish. The only difference is that to believe is greatly to your advantage.

The mountain abyss is no impenetrable brick wall, or at least the climber is not compelled to think so.  It is a daunting challenge, which our climber will meet only on condition that he muster his most vital “subjective energies.” Unless he’s a fatalist with a death wish, he’ll regard the outcome of his plight as indeterminate, but possibly responsive to his best effort.

Irwin’s final paragraph acknowledges the disingenuity of asserting religious and ethical “fictions” and violating one’s own convictions, but treats free will as a special case. “I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it.” No. When you face your terminal leap – as we all do, much more frequently than we know – you’ll be a believer.

And that’s a nice (unpremeditated) segue to Kierkegaard on Monday… though possibly not to Russell on Tuesday.

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