Archive for April, 2016

Sacred space

April 29, 2016

Happiness, the Briefer Course commences Monday. I’ve billed it as a distillation of the course I’ve done many times before, but deciding what to distill and what to leave out of our four May sessions is a challenge. And, how to begin.

I’ve lately been concluding some of my classes, on the last day, with a quote from Joseph Campbell about following your bliss and not following a guru. Maybe he’ll be good on Day 1, too.

[Sacred space] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen. Power of Myth, Brainpickings

Something like happiness may even happen there, and may be mobile – so long as you remember to make your way back to the sacred space again tomorrow and the next day and the next, and don’t bog down in unreasonable expectations of personal perfectability. Errors and false starts happen, inevitably, but they’re not irrecoverable. Or so I think I’ve learned.

6 am/5:57, 57/84

via Blogger

Lucky as Lou

April 28, 2016

Grading time again. Best way to learn? Practice, practice…

“Mature” learners, like those I’ll be meeting Monday in my Lifelong Learning class on happiness, know that practice counts.

They (unlike Calvin) also know that “youth’s a stuff that won’t endure,” and that “to see the daylight still under any conditions” makes us lucky as Lou Gehrig. He died at 38, had a horrible disease named for him, and considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Lou knew. We’re all lucky and, happiness researchers confirm, happier when we know it. Happy people are grateful to be alive. They treasure their good health for as long as it lasts, and turn it into gratifying experience. Many of them practice gratitude, some even keep a gratitude journal. I guess that’s kinda what this blog is, though I sometimes use it to complain about politicians and ungrateful students.

What else will I tell my mature students on Monday? For one thing, that happy people know what they know, but don’t pretend to know it all. They’re Socratically humble and self-effacing. They live and learn, remaining always open to new possibilities and perspectives. I probably don’t need to tell them that. I’m looking forward to learning from them. I always do.

And the happiest mature people know that so-called little things matter a lot, like Grandpa at the softball game last night with Coach’s toddler. He couldn’t stop effusing over how smart and cute and clever she is. It’s when we stop to look and appreciate the promise of the next generation that we really get it: “Oh, but the long, long time the world shall last,” after we’re gone.

6 am/5:58, 66/86/57

via Blogger

The End

April 26, 2016

An unexpected trip to the emergency clinic, after Younger Daughter’s inelegant slide at second base last night, is another little reminder that things can end more suddenly than expected. (It was just a sprain, fortunately, and her team swept the doubleheader.)

It’s suddenly semester’s end today. We wrap up CoPhi with questions about the future of life and intelligence (the AI debate between Turing and Searle) and, prompted by Peter Singer, what we all owe one another.

In Atheism, Russell’s last words both affirm and swipe at American philosophy, disputing de Tocqueville’s judgment that Americans are the least philosophical of peoples but also repudiating the pragmatic suggestion that truth has anything essential to do with utility. Then, a look at how Russell’s heir Hitchens handled his own sudden end.

In Bioethics, Atul Gawande’s touching farewell to his father reminds me of one of my last hard but healing conversations with mine, and of something else William James said as his own time grew short in the summer of 1910.

…youth’s a stuff that won’t endure, in any one, and to have had it, as you and I have had it, is a good deal gained anyhow, while to see the daylight still under any conditions is perhaps also better than nothing, and meanwhile the good months are sure to bring the final relief after which, “when you and I behind the veil are passed, Oh, but the long, long time the world shall last.”

Gloomy perhaps, but as Sam Scheffler says, the collective afterlife on this side of the veil gives us all a lot to live for. Like Lou Gehrig, we’re lucky – the luckiest – to have seen and felt the daylight at all. Life goes on, nothing is concluded.

And my lifelong learning Happiness class begins on Monday. It almost never ends.

5:30/6:01, 63/89/62

via Blogger

A better life

April 21, 2016

Busy day ahead: Wittgenstein, Arendt, and Rawls in CoPhi, Russell on “nice” people and sexual ethics in his day, in Atheism (what would he say about our culture of sexting and oversharing?), Gawande on autonomy and “A Better Life” in Bioethics, then a pitch for my summer course “A Stroll Through Western Civilization,” and finally a talk to the Students for Environmental Action I’m calling “Earth Day 2016: A Glimmer of Hope“.

John Muir is an Earth Day hero, a self-described “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc.,” an early-riser, thousand-mile walker, and inventor of “a bed that set him on his feet every morning and simultaneously lighted a lamp, then opened each of his textbooks for a set length of time.” He wrote his address: “John-Muir, Earth-planet, Universe.”

Image result for mark twain halley's cometThe Almanac also reports that this was the day in 1910 when Mark Twain went out with the comet he rode in on.

Twain wasn’t quite old enough then, at 75, to join my collection of inspiring older people. If I get to the end of my Earth Day slideshow this evening, I’ll mention one of them: the late, great environmental steward Stewart Udall. He wrote a wonderful letter to his grandchildren (and he was one of those magnificent citizens of the planet and universe, like John Muir, who considered us all his grandchildren).

This is the most important letter I will ever write. It concerns your future—and the tomorrows of the innumerable human beings who share this vulnerable, fragile planet with you. It involves changes that must be made if environmental disasters are to be avoided. The response to this challenge will shape the future of the entire human race…

Why am I so optimistic about your future? Because the world has had its fill of fear and is hungry for hope. Because an educational revolution has been underway for the past two decades in several countries and has enhanced the capacity of nations to deal with unprecedented challenges… the doubling and prospective tripling of the number of highly trained, selfless scientists and engineers has produced a pool of brainpower and moral power that is ready to create the building blocks of a new and better world.

The challenges that your generation faces will test your ingenuity and generosity. Your eyes will scan horizons that human beings have never contemplated. Whether you are a person of faith who believes the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, whether you are an individual who has had mystical experiences that link you to the network of eternity, or whether you are a fervent conservationist who wants to leave a legacy for your progeny, the earth needs your devotion and tender care.

Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!

5:30/6:07, 67/72

via Blogger

Glimmers of hope

April 20, 2016

A New Dark Age Looms,” says a currently-popular Times op-ed, on the eve of my Earth Week talk to the Students for Environmental Action which I’m calling “Glimmers of Hope.”

Inveterate optimism may not sell newspapers, may in fact be delusional – “Drumpf Wins New York” is today’s big headline – but we’ve all gotta be what we’re gonna be. My glass remains half full.

Why do I discern hopeful glimmers where others detect only the impending darkness? I follow the same prompt that fills William Gail with Gloom, but it takes me to a better place. “Picture yourself in our grandchildren’s time, a century hence.” My grandchildren are going to be geniuses, maybe yours are too. Deep pessimism is an indulgence we owe it to them to forego, out of loyalty to their genius.

That’s not to deny the truth of Gail’s analysis, “that disrupting nature’s patterns could extend well beyond extreme weather, with far more pervasive impacts” on the predictive models that allow us to project and manage food production, develop adequate infrastructure, anticipate oceanic impacts, and generally just stay a step ahead of catastrophe.

But it is to insist that while “our grandchildren could grow up knowing less about the planet than we do today,” they could also commit themselves more intelligently and willfully to new and better patterns of living that we’ve not even imagined, and to technologies we’ve not taken seriously enough. Electric cars, rockets to Mars, the wind, the sun, and who knows what else are all theirs for the harvesting. I’m betting on them, on the future. As Mr. Faulkner said, it is the poet’s, the writer’s, the philosopher’s

duty and privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. [His] voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

A glimmer of hope is still hope.

6:00/6:08, 60/78

via Blogger

Existential vertigo

April 19, 2016

In CoPhi today, a raft of Existentialists plus Freud and Russell.

Sarah Bakewell’s Existentialist Cafe nods at founding forebears Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. “Both were individualists, and both were contrarians by nature, dedicated to making people uncomfortable. Both must have been unbearable to spend more than a few hours with.” People who assert their radical freedom to reinvent themselves perpetually and unpredictably, the eternal prerogative of youth, do tend to make others uncomfortable. “This constant choosing brings a pervasive anxiety, not unlike the vertigo that comes from looking over a cliff.”

Kierkegaard, as we noted the other day, was a peripatetic. Bakewell says he was hard to walk with, as he “considered it a matter of principle to throw people off their stride.” A comfortable rhythmic gate, he thought, makes us forgetful of existence and “the dizziness of freedom.”

That’s one way to look at it. But Sartre’s companion Simone de Beauvoir saw that existential freedom can also correct and arrest the dizziness that comes from gratuitous socially-imposed and self-imposed gender restrictions.

Citizen Tom Paine also took a different approach to freedom, emphasizing less its capacity to induce vertigo than the way it empowers us all to resist dogmatism and servility to one’s own thoughtlessness, and to think for ourselves.

In Atheism today Russell writes of Paine, who was also one of Christopher Hitchens’ contrarian heroes. Hitch cites Paine‘s Voltaire-esque advocacy of free expression:

“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

In Bioethics, we consider “Assistance”: the idea of Assisted Living, and how it’s been compromised by charlatans who like the sound but not the reality of acknowledging the freedom of older people. What would Tom Paine say about that?

5:30/6:09, 55/81

via Blogger


April 18, 2016

The great San Francisco quake of 1906 was a century and a decade ago this morning, notes the Almanac. William James was there, and his reaction was amazing – “…no fear, only admiration for the way a wooden house could prove its elasticity, and glee over the vividness of the manner in which such an ‘abstract idea’ as ‘earthquake’ could verify itself into sensible reality.” The quake “fed his thoughts,” says Rebecca Solnit, as extreme outer events can sometimes nourish a person’s inner life with challenge and purpose. But you have to be the kind of person who welcomes spontaneous extremity, to be so nourished. Some of us come by that temperament naturally, others have to work at it.

I dipped into James’s letters over the weekend, as I often do, for sustenance and inspiration. In what would turn out to be his final months, he was writing to friends of his admiration for a new “discreet” biography of Nietzsche, by Halevy. He was not a fan of the Will to Power and “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies” but he did appreciate the German iconoclast’s openness to extremity and the strenuous life. I’ve started Halevy’s Life of Nietzsche, it’s good. (And free on Kindle.)

Earthquake is a good metaphor for that, not only the geologic energy of the seismic event itself but even more the social energy of reconstruction. The willingness to pitch in with your peers, in times of stress and destruction, to bring about something better for the whole community, is admirable indeed. The will to collaborate in common cause, for the common good, is one of our best attainments. Nietzsche didn’t quite get that. San Francisco did.

We’re doing Nietzsche in class tomorrow, and existentialism. I’ll note Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s unexpected mention of Camus, in his unexpected endorsement of Hillary.

And Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist CafeAnd Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s existential recoil from celebrity and commercialism… and the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness as our peculiar twist on continental existentialism.

5:45/6:10, 52/85

via Blogger

Life goes on

April 14, 2016
Younger Daughter’s emergency call for special delivery of her forgotten softball jersey before the match with McGavock yesterday got me to the game with a few minutes to spare, so I ambled over to Parnassus and picked up E.O. Wilson’s latest plea for sanity.

Image result for half earth eo wilson

“Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world. Our own ultimate future depends upon that understanding. We have come a very long way through the barbaric period in which we still live, and now I believe we’ve learned enough to adopt a transcendent moral precept concerning the rest of life. It is simple and easy to say: Do no further harm to the biosphere.”

That’s the hook I’ll use a week from today, on the eve of Earth Day, when I speak again to the Students for Environmental Action (in BAS S332 on our campus, if you’re there, at 6 pm).

I got a gracious note yesterday from the student who invited me last time I spoke to them, giving me too much credit for helping him get accepted by ten graduate programs. Good luck, William! Students like you are our greatest source of hope and optimism for the Earth.

I’ll also be looking for glimmers of hope, next week and next Fall in Environmental Ethics, from Naomi Klein, Tim Flannery, Bill McKibben, and Wilson. We have to hope he’s right, that we’ve learned to accept the responsibility of stewardship and follow that precept. The alternative is really unthinkable.

Hillsboro topped McGavock in a thrilling extra-inning walk-off, btw. Younger Daughter scored the first of the two runs they needed to win. Glad I took responsibility for that jersey.

Today in CoPhi I’m responsible for introducing Kierkegaard, Marx, Peirce, & James. They’re all defenders of faith in the future, in one form or another. Kierkegaard and James favored leaps over the chasm of uncertainty and short evidence for belief, Marx forecast a classless society, Peirce trusted the long run of inquiry to give us some truth. Particulars aside, this moment in our planet’s history is going to require our working faith in a sustainable future, as a condition of its possibility.

In Atheism today we read Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship,” where he says we must learn the world was not made for us. It remains to be seen if we’re “made” for it, up to the challenge of sustaining it as a hospitable human abode. Alpha Centauri beckons, but it wasn’t made for us either. Not yet.

In Bioethics, Atul Gawande will enumerate all the ways “things fall apart” for embodied agents like ourselves. We should have learned from our previous read, though, that while individual bodies are all-too-mortal, the collective body of humanity, the social body, can endure if enough of us will just “tend our garden.”

While in Parnassus, I spotted one of Ann Patchett’s stronger recommendations:

“Buy this book and read it immediately… It’s for all of us. Atul Gawande is the perfect guide for helping us think about how life ends. It’s not depressing. It’s essential.” 

And of course it’s essential to think about how life continues, too. Happy Earth Week.

5:30/6:16, 57/70/51

via Blogger

Splendid health

April 12, 2016

The steroids are long gone, the Levofloxacin runs out today, but traces of the pneumonia I brought back from KC continue to remind me that breath is life. William James’s best advice to his friend Schiller is too true: “Keep your health, your splendid health, it’s worth more than all the truths under the firmament.”

But we do have other truths to catch up with today. In CoPhi we consider Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, and Darwin. Three optimists and one scrooge.

In Atheism, it’s on to Lord Russell. His message to the future: “never be diverted by what you wish to believe… love is wise, hatred is foolish. We must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance that is absolutely vital…”

In Bio, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal really hits home.

“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.”

And, did you see Jackie Robinson? Ken Burns has another hit too, continuing tonight. We do need our storytellers and our mortal heroes. “Free minds and hearts at work…”

5:30/6:18, 46/65

via Blogger

Safe at home

April 5, 2016

Back from my long road trip to Kansas, the Baseball Conference, KC and the Negro Leagues Museum. Good times. Woulda been even better if I’d managed at some point to climb back out from “under the weather,” but it’s good to be reminded periodically not to take health for granted. (It’s Joseph Lister’s birthday, a propos of that. His germ theory cut mortality from “ward fever” from 50 to 15 %, and he “lived to see the entire medical community accept and adopt his methods.”)

And, it’s always good to come safely home. Picked up a rider in Missouri, my sister. She’ll be visiting us in Bioethics this afternoon, to talk about health and life in the E.R.

In CoPhi, Kant and Bentham. If a deranged ax-wielder ever comes looking for me, I hope my friends are all utilliatarians and not deontologists.

In Atheism, we finish with Kitcher’s measured and respectful Life After Faith before turning next time to Bertrand Russell. Red meat for the non-accommodationists.

5:30/6:29, 40/62

via Blogger