Archive for December, 2015

The Force

December 29, 2015

“We’ll figure it out. We’ll use the Force.”
-Han Solo: “That‘s not how the Force works!”

So, how does it work?

The Force is an energy field that suffuses reality. For those whose will is strong enough, an exertion of will can manipulate that field. Using the Force is less like using your arm, and more like navigating in a watercraft: there are currents and eddies to consider, which you can either manipulate to achieve your goals or (with sufficient strength) overpower and work against.

Still a few unanswered questions here.  May have to ask a philosopher or two.

Obi-Wan thus makes it sound as if the Force depends on living things for its existence, while causing the galaxy itself to cohere. Indeed, this latter feature of it makes it sounds like one of the fundamental causal laws of the universe, akin to gravity or electromagnetism…

What makes this distressing is that most accounts of what makes science scientific is its ability to identify and explain true causes and distinguish them from pseudocauses such as magic or mystical powers.  Star Wars and Philosophy

Philosophers shouldn’t be so distressed. It’s only a movie.

Both Older and Younger Daughter said, on our way back from the Hollywood 27 last night, that they had another unanswered question: what makes the Resistance better than the Dark Side? They just don’t see it. They say they see the appeal of the cloaked heavy-breathers.

I find that attitude disquieting, in the wake of a climactic scene featuring heartless patricide.  But it’s only a movie. Right?

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December 16, 2015

“I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I hope we’ve learnt something from the most barbaric century in history — the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalization …” Arthur C. Clarke (on his b’day)

Is it cause for optimism, or a further sign of apocalypse, that the Donald actually said something sensible at last night’s Vegas “debate“? (Could it be both?)

Mr. Trump, are Americans safer with dictators running the world in the Middle East?

TRUMP: In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.
We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.
It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.

FIORINA: That is exactly what President Obama said. I’m amazed to hear that from a republican presidential candidate…

Me too!

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Hitch & Hume against nihilism

December 15, 2015

Four years ago today, the most relentless Horseman rode away. Christopher Hitchens was a fierce opponent of that version of nihilism that denigrates the multiform meaningfulness of life.

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

In other words, as David Hume said, “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” Live out the meanings of your life, and – like Hitch and Hume – face its inevitable end with unflinching dignity and good humor. “To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”

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Nihilism and David Hume

December 14, 2015

Grades are in, now I can circle back to reflect on one of the more interesting final report submissions I’ve received in a long time. The topic is nihilism and, at least implicitly, David Hume.

Our semester-long readings course on Hume concluded with an impassioned discussion in which one of us (not me!) defended what he and Alex Rosenberg call nihilism. Is that view consistent with Humean principles? To try and find out, and in the dialogical spirit of Le Bon David, I suggested that my students work up a dialogue. And they did.

Dialogues Concerning Moral Nihilism is fun and breezy, provocative, and well worth thinking about. Also, it entirely fails to persuade me of the rectitude of nihilism by any definition I’ve yet encountered. 

Rosenberg’s definition, from his Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, is circumscribed. 

Nihilism tells us … [that] moral judgments are … all wrong. More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.” That, too, is untenable nonsense. Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value. … Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself. 

Nietzschean nihilism is whatever an aspirant Ubermensch would consider restrictive of his power to fashion new values and re-value the  old.

A more commonplace definition:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. IEP

Also widely shared:

“…a belief in the pointlessness of existence. the absence of truth. the absence of reason… those who see it as a self-defeating argument are people who still have something to believe in.” (Urban Dictionary)

So, even granting that my students reject these popular definitions in favor of something more Rosenbergian, you automatically saddle yourself with a branding (or sales and marketing, or PR) problem if you insist on calling yourself a Nihilist. You will be widely misunderstood, and reviled; or understood and reviled; or just reviled; and you’ll be widely dismissed as irrelevant to the wider philosophical conversation.

That last consequence goes beyond branding, if you think there’s more to philosophizing than simply satisfying yourself that your own views are credible in your own estimation. If you think philosophy should also engage the hearts and minds of others, and occasionally change them or be changed by them, then you’ll want to stay out of that saddle.

But okay. Call a rose whatever you will, is it true that all values are baseless, etc?

The wider conversation cannot admit that all values are baseless. William James’s “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” attempts to explain why not:

Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist, in yon blue heaven above us bent, we form at any rate an ethical republic here below. And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. “The religion of humanity” affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.

Where there are persons sharing space and resources there must be an ethical discrimination of values, all cannot be baseless, at least some value-based desires must be addressed and if possible – if com-possible – must be satisfied. “In the first place we will not be sceptics; we hold to it that there is a truth to be ascertained.” We may fail to ascertain it, but we owe it to one another to seek it.

James’s essay strikingly echoes Hume’s commitment to the “conservative” communal resolution of value disputes.

The presumption in cases of conflict must always be in favor of the conventionally recognized good. The philosopher must be a conservative, and in the construction of his casuistic scale must put the things most in accordance with the customs of the community on top.

(To be continued)

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Brighter worlds

December 4, 2015

Today’s devotional readings, before grading: fortifying reminders of one’s privileged charge as an educator, and of the ancient nobility of philosophy before its retreat to the academy; and another dose of courage from the sage of Konigsberg.

For Jefferson, William and Mary was largely about what university life is supposed to be about: reading books, enjoying the company of the like~minded. and savoring teachers who seem to be ambassadors from other, richer. brighter worlds. Jon Meacham

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. HDT

Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. this immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenmentKant

5:50 am/6:44, 29/55

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December 3, 2015

It’s that time again, the time I used to call “grading” but now euphemize as collaborating and CoPhilosophizing.  It won’t kill me, or at least it hasn’t yet. Re-framing helps. With the right attitude and a sense of humor, it might even make me stronger. If I didn’t laugh I think I just might die crying, when (for example) I read:

  • Who said “existence precedes essence”? –Alan [Turing?]
  • Who is considered the father of psychoanalysis? Albert [Einstein?]
  • Who illustrated his philosophical method with a squirrel? –Simone [de Beauvoir?]
  • Who said we should give everyone “space to develop as they saw fit” so long as they do no harm in the process? -Fredrick [Nietzsche?]
  • Who was the “melancholy Dane” who retold the Abraham/Isaac story? –Hannah Arendt [should this get partial credit, for finally including a surname?]
Other responses to that last one, easily the most amusing Q/A (from a grader’s standpoint): Daniel Dennett… C.S. Peirce… William James… Henry James… Peter Singer… 
The correct answers, of course, once considered staples of cultural literacy whether one was technically a collegian or not: Sartre, Freud, Wm James, JS Mill, Kierkegaard.

How does a college student miss every single question on an exam with a glossary containing all the answers drawn from quizzes we’ve already discussed in class and posted on our site?! 
Looking forward to my Honors classes next Fall.

6 am/6:43, 34/48

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Don’t stop

December 2, 2015

Speaking of the stream of life, a nice Ann Patchett tribute (on her birthday) to her teacher Grace Paley:

“She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”

We teachers are forever prompting students to say something, and to listen. But Ann’s right, I can’t teach them “how to have something to say.” I can only offer my own meager example, shine my dim light, and point out some of the brighter lights who’ve led us to where we are.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Image result for william james

There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.–Farewell!”

5:20/6:42, 48/53

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Fresh air

December 1, 2015

Once more with Russell’s Conquest today, and then it’s no more Happiness ’til 2017. All good things must pass, etc. But I agree with Russell,

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”  What I Believe

His final words in Conquest proclaim a happy transcendence (trans-end-dance, in Peter Ackroyd’s clever dissection) of death. A happy person

feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.

The stream of life, the continuous human community, the river out of Eden… whatever you call it, it’s bigger than self, it’s life-affirming, and it’s immanent – all around us, our happy medium.

And so, our season ends but our show’s not yet been cancelled. Long live the show. Life goes on. Afterlife? It’s here and now. (And next semester in A&P)

There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.–Farewell!”

5:30/6:41, 64/64

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