Archive for January, 2016


January 28, 2016

Today in CoPhi we pause to consider eastern perspectives, before proceeding in the balance of the semester to occupy ourselves mainly with Nigel Warburton’s western orientation. The differences are stark, particularly with respect to the dualistic thinking that has so dominated this quadrant and led so many of our predecessors to defend notions like soul-survival and personal immortality. As the late Robert Solomon noted, the eastern (specifically Taoist) soul is more like a drop of water in a stream than like an eternal life-preserver or an “intact bit of eternity in each of us.”

In Atheism we conclude Julian Baggini’s quick overview. Does he give short shrift to the role of “inner conviction” in establishing personal belief? Isn’t subjectivity or temperament an inevitable factor in philosophy (as James said), even though western philosophy’s official view is that it should not be? Or is inner conviction just a mirror of external, local contingencies of birth that we’re not obliged to honor, defer to, or even respect?

Baggini says “atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us… [this is] the precondition for meaningful adult lives.” That’s sharply-stated, an echo of Carl Sagan’s milder (but no less portentous) Pale Blue Dot proclamation of “no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

In Bioethics we’re on the “Perspectives” chapter that asks whether and how professional healthcare providers should negotiate or accommodate the various framework beliefs of patients. Or their parents. How should physicians treat and care for children whose parents object to medical intervention on religious grounds?

James again: we all have a philosophy that “determines the perspective in [our] several worlds… a more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.” It’s our task today, and most every day, to notice those perspectives and talk about them. Nice work if you can get it.

5:45/7:04, 29/57

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January 27, 2016

We had an animated discussion in CoPhi-6 yesterday about these strange days, in our public discourse, and their echo of the 1950s. Some of us agreed, people didn’t listen respectfully to one another then and they’re not listening now. It’s easier, and a lot more entertaining, to just attack and villify anyone whose views or practices differ from ours, to allege their disloyalty and threat to the nation, and congratulate ourselves for not being them.

Maybe it’s too soon to draw that parallel. No votes have yet been cast, and even so the victors in Iowa and New Hampshire frequently stall out well before spring and summer. We may still wake from the unpleasantness of Trump & Co., if we can remember that while politics can be the most entertaining show on the dial its purpose is much more serious. The people we privilege with the responsibility of leadership must exemplify the highest qualities of respectful dialogue, not the lowest form of pandering to fear and xenophobia.

I’m encouraged by what I heard in class to think that enough of us know that, and might yet shake off the apathy and distraction of entertainment politics long enough to register our disapproval of people and politicians who don’t listen. They’re as marginal and silly and unreal, albeit entertaining, as the flat-earthers.

6:00/6:54, 32/42/26

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More life

January 26, 2016

The bright white world has quickly faded back to wet and gray. That’s the way of things, around these parts.

And we’re back in class, as the weekend’s eight inches of wintry blast – a blizzard, by local standards – has suddenly thawed into a big sloppy muddy slushy mess, and reminded us that change is constant.

In CoPhi today, peripatetics old and new; and, how This I Believe models one of the most important skills for the collaborative approach we follow in my classes: willingness to listen to disparate public professions of personal conviction, with sympathy and a critical ear, but without meanness and rancor. It’s a skill sadly missing from most public and political dialogue.

In Atheism & Philosophy, we look (with Julian Baggini) at godless ethics and meaning. The main takeaway: being good is a challenge for us all, with or without a heavenly host and role-model; and so is the quest for significance. You can’t simply assign goodness or meaning to an external law-and-purpose-Giver and be done with it, we must each appropriate and perpetually re-appropriate the point and integrity of our lives. That goes for gods and humans alike, who must (Euthyphro should have learned from Socrates) all acknowledge the reasonableness of independent standards.

William James: “The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place.”

And finally today in Bioethics, we note the uses and limitations of theory. Is there, for instance, a theoretical solution to the question of how long a good and meaningful life must be? Baggini votes for longer lives than we’ve yet averaged, but not eternally more. I agree. More life, please. As Younger Daughter used to say, “I like too much!”

But enough will eventually be enough… and there will be new life in the Spring.

5:50/6:54, 50/26

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What it’s all about

January 21, 2016

We begin at the beginning in all four classes today, asking What is philosophy? What is atheism? What is bioethics? Or answering, to turn it around Jeopardy-style. The short affirmative prompts, then, to which these simple questions are each an appropriate respective response:

  • The stubborn commitment to thinking and speaking clearly, motivated by the love and pursuit of wisdom.
  • The belief that there are no gods or other supernatural agencies and forces guiding the fate and destiny of human beings.
  •  The study of life in light of the rules, conditions, and actions by which it may flourish.
I’ll solicit crowd-sourced alternative prompts and definitions from each class, as always. 
Not every philosopher is devoted to clarity, nor does every philosopher seem especially clear on the meaning of wisdom. When the Philosophy Bites inquisitors asked a sampling of contemporary philosophers to say what their profession is and does, the results varied widely. None of them came up with a better answer than William James’s “stubborness.”
There’s less variety among atheists, definitionally, but there’s a distinct spectrum of attitudes and temperaments within the godless community. Some atheists are “friendly” like Hemant Mehta and Julian Baggini, some are nasty like P. Zed Myers, many just want to understand what others mean by “God” and why, like Spinoza. I’m urging him as our role-model.
There’s plenty of difference among bioethicists, particularly when religious convictions concerning the god-granted sanctity of life are introduced, but none would deny that good living is the field’s focus. And good dying. That’ll be our capstone topic, as Atul Gawande leads us into the thicket of issues surrounding life’s final chapters. 
King Louis XVI was beheaded on this date in 1793 in Paris, btw. Lots of heads rolled in the French Revolution. Not a good last chapter for anyone, though the King’s gracious last words weren’t bad.
What does it mean to live a good life and anticipate a good death? If that’s our jeopardy answer, the prompt might just be: What are all of these classes ultimately about? 

5:50/6:67, 31/41

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Gather the light

January 20, 2016
They’ve closed school today, after yesterday’s reopening, due to the threat of a wintry mix that’s raining pellets this morning. I’m glad we got Opening Day in, it always lifts my spirit to encounter so many eager new learners (and a few older ones) on Day One. 
It was a cold and bracing start. My spread-out schedule had me shuttling back and forth across campus all day long: over 18,000 steps, says my phone Pacer. As a peripatetic I’m of course not complaining. 
On one of my transits I was pleased to be hailed by one of my old students, whose fraternity was giving away hot (well, warm) chocolate. The general mood on campus, if I detected it aright, was upbeat and hopeful. 

We’re exactly one year out from our next Inauguration Day. Will it be upbeat and hopeful? 

In 1969 at his Inauguration, a hopeful Richard Nixon read these florid words: “We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.” He went on to gather more than light, and less than a full second term, as his paranoid administration compiled Enemies Lists and burgled the DNC at Watergate. 
But anyway, what a great proposal. It’s why I wore my canary-yellow necktie yesterday, to gather the light and reflect it as best I could. That’s also what college is for.
5:50/6:57, 28/38

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Glimmer Glimmer

January 15, 2016

What if it were true, that only the present is real? An eternal now, forever?

But, what would “forever” mean then, if not past-present-future in a rolling wave that never ends? Never so far, that is, never so far as we can grasp. How about it, William Blake? How do you hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour?

We’re not so innocent after all, we’re always dragging the past and foreseeing (usually falsely) the future, or versions of past and future. We’re experienced, and that means we’re receptive to more. Not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but in our universe it’s real. We’d better accept it.

We’re definitely in the poetic realm here. William James wrote those pioneering chapters on the subject in his pioneering Principles, reaching immediately for the image of a glow worm whose light is here and gone, here and gone, here and gone again, without continuity and hence without temporality.

It’s a beautiful image but also dreadful, given our constitutional-evolutionary adaptation to a world of flowing continuity. Fortunately it’s “fanciful,” our figurative bioluminescence sheds light on time,

our consciousness never shrinks to the dimensions of a glow-worm spark. The knowledge of some other
part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always
mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing.

The past-present-future wave is no more composed of nonexistent nonentities than is the ocean. Picture our little glow worm surfing a wave, recalling the last crest, anticipating the next. He doesn’t dare forget he’s part of something rolling and flowing and continuing, and he’s delighted, forever and always, to catch a wave. It glimmers, so does he, so should we in the knowledge of our intrinsic relatedness to the span of history and becoming.

5:50/6:59, 48/53/30

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Just showing up

January 14, 2016

Still fumbling for the key to unlock what I want to say, in a critically constructive spirit, about John Lachs, perceptual immediacy, the urgency of “now” in contrast with the relative remoteness of past and future, the importance of balancing present enjoyment with past experience and future possibility, the pan-reality of the whole temporal gamut…

Time, said Henry Thoreau, is but the stream I go fishing in. I prefer the metaphor, also well-suited to Henry’s lifestyle, of time as a trail to walk: you can focus on the point of departure or arrival whenever you like, or any other arbitrary slice of the journey; but if you want to keep your balance and remain upright on two legs you must attend to each step in turn. The attention paid, one you’ve establish a steady rhythm of motion, may be subliminal and shared with multiple other tasks of thought and affect – much like breathing. But attention must be paid.

Will that help me locate my elusive key?

E.B. White said he woke up each day torn between an impulse to enjoy the world and a counter-impulse to save it, making it hard to plan his day. That seems relevant to the question of time and how we experience it. The whole day is real, as is a whole walk or a whole fishing expedition. But you have to take each step in turn, and each quickly dissolves into the next. The speciousness of the present, as James wrote of it in his Principles of Psychology, doesn’t invalidate it, or its predecessors, or its successors.

 The new Adam Gopnik essay on Henry James helps.

Thinking about their childhood makes Henry happy, and also reminds him of why he became a writer. Where William was compelled—by his father and by being firstborn, but far more by the force of his character and his mind—to learn and ascend and accumulate, young Henry is content to observe and register and experience. The idea of the writer as someone content just to see and hear, to wrap himself right around a moment of being, feels serene rather than defensive. “My stronger rule, however, I confess, and the one by which I must here consistently be guided, is that, from the moment it is a question of projecting a picture, no particle that counts for memory or is appreciable to the spirit can be too tiny, and that experience, in the name of which one speaks, is all compact of them and shining with them.”

…Henry’s theory of experience as the thing in itself was closer to his brother’s psychology than either quite knew. William’s take on religious ecstasy, related in his great “Varieties of Religious Experience”—basically, that if you think you’re in the presence of the divine, you are—is very much like Henry’s take on all experience. If looking at a little gathering of blue uniforms in camp gives you a strong sense of the Union Army and its morale and its “vibrations,” then you have gained all these things. If you think that what you’re seeing is everything there is to see, then you have seen it all. William’s version feels energetic, and Henry’s feels elegiac, but they share the same basic American belief: in the absence of God, you can get all the ecstasy and transcendence and numinosity you need just by showing up.

Just showing up for each step and each moment will take you as far down the trail as you can go, and though Lachs is right to say we cannot know how life might be different in a hundred years, he’s also right to say we must embrace myriad possibilities. Surely that means we have to think about alternative possible futures and how our present may prepare or ruin them. And that makes it wrong to say that what exists now is the only reality. Doesn’t it?

5:45/6:59, 39/59

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January 13, 2016

The 44th American president’s final state of the union address, already? The future once again is now, time keeps on slipping into it, there’s no denying it.

And that’s what he talked about, coming full circle: a hopeful and changing future we can believe in, including a cancer moonshot, and in the meantime a recognition that things aren’t half as bad as the deniers and “cynics” say.

Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.
We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon. (APPLAUSE)
Now, that spirit of discovery is in our DNA. America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better future.

He’s right. We need lots of moonshots, of all kinds, to own the future and invigorate the present. We need to leave the despairing/disparaging pessimists in the past, where they can be safely visited and studied and learned from. Sour Schopenhauers have their instructive uses, and so even have terrible Trumps and brutal Cruzes.

6 am/7, 20/44

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History of the future

January 12, 2016

What a nice poem this morning, “For My Daughter in Reply to a Question,” though we infer that it must have been a troubled question. The poet reassures his presumably quite youthful and disturbed inquisitor that life is good and long, that “your children will be my grandchildren,” that we each offer unique gifts (“There’ll never be another as you and never another as I”), that all is not vanity (“We will not be forgotten and passed over and buried under the births and deaths to come”). That last stanza, dubious as it is, expresses something a young person needs to hear: the procession of lives in the midst of which we wake to find ourselves is no mere death march, it’s the walk of life.

Another side of the story, which an older person needs to hear, is told by Susan Jacoby in Never Say Die, wherein which she challenges our culture’s infatuation with endless youth in a “new old age.”

And James Howard Kunstler is also onto something important, in his History of the Future. We must recognize the continuity between our own brief lives and our species’ distant prospect, lest through inaction and inattention we irreparably compromise the life-conditions of both. The idea that only “now, always” matters is irresponsible and self-defeating.

5:40/7:00, 36/43/19

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Integrity, stability, beauty, harmony, ch-changes

January 11, 2016

“Oh look out now you rock and rollers / Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.” And so another legendary mortal falls to earth to join the innumerable caravan, just two days after a birthday and the release of a new recording. Pleasant dreams, David Bowie. The living will continue to appreciate and celebrate your creative genius.

Speaking of… William James was born on this date in 1842. A pluralistic universe, he also knew, constantly changes.

The pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold knew that too, and every friend of the eartth knows he wrote “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Not everyone knows he also said “harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.”

Lest I be accused of forgetting, and sowing seeds of domestic disharmony: happy birthday to my wife. Life goes on.

5:30/7:00, 14/40

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