Archive for August, 2016

Socrates and Plato disturb the universe

August 31, 2016

Today in CoPhi it’s Bertrand Russell’s take on Socrates and Plato, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s prologue to Plato at the Googleplex.

We’ll consider the charges against Socrates, both formal and insinuated. His most notorious offense was “corrupting the youth,” a charge all subsequent philosophy profs have worn with honor inasmuch as the corrupting influence is simply the instigation to think, to question, to challenge uncritical conventions and traditions, to sapere aude.

To fear death is unwise and ill-informed., said Socrates. We simply don’t know if our terminal state is something dreadful, something wonderful, or merely something we’ll not be present for. Wisdom is a refusal to speak authoritatively whereof one is ignorant, and in this matter of mortality we must learn to hold our tongues and repel our terror. “To philosophize is to prepare to die.”

A new Stone essay says the best preparation is to live well and realize we’ll live on in “multiple dimensions in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.”

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum, which I naïvely took to mean life in general, is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life. In other words, I am confronting my death each day that I live.

If we can learn to identify with dimensions of life beyond our own small biological boundaries, we’ll also confront the rich and rolling spectacle of life on the grand scale each day as well. Goldstein puts it this way:

We become better as we take in the universe, thinking more about the largeness that it is and less about the smallness that is us. Plato often betrays a horror of human nature, seeing it as more beastly than godlike. Human nature is an ethical and political problem to be solved, and only the universe is adequate to the enormous task.

Don’t just take it in, though. Don’t just think about it, Prufrock. Do we dare disturb the universe? That’s why we’re here.

5:45/6:20, 75/91/70, 7:14

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The Great Transition

August 30, 2016

I’m going to miss that smiling morning moon, when it shifts to the right and behind the tree (from my present point of view) out here in the pre-dawn. But shift happens.

In Environmental Ethics today Naomi Klein tells us “the right is right,” to admit the reality of climate change would also be to concede the necessity of a fundamental change in the American way of life. That would shatter their free-market worldview. Easier simply to cry “hoax” and deny reality. They’re dead wrong about the science of climate change, but they do understand that if enough of us take it seriously it will change everything. That’s why they deny. Klein says it’s rational for them to deny climate change, given the stakes. It’s not, though. It’s not rational for anyone to deny the conditions of life.

We all suffer that kind of confirmation bias, that tendency to deny inconvenient truths that undermine our complacency and subvert our convictions. But as recently as 2007, “climate change was something almost everyone acknowledged was happening.” It’s a bit frightening to reflect on just how quickly that changed, in direct response to targeted propaganda campaigns. We’re that manipulable. But this also shows how quickly a cultural ethos can change, and that offers a glimmer of hope that an ardent counter-campaign on behalf of reality might still succeed.
So the issue is stark: do we “need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values,” or can we all just go to the tailgate party and the football game and leave the fate of the earth “to the magic of the market”? 
The magic of the voting booth may play a role this year too. Are all those tailgaters going to vote? Are their hearts and minds in the game too? We’d better assume that they are. 
In “Hot Money” Klein begins to tackle “a logic even more entrenched than free trade – the logic of indiscriminate economic growth.” Instead we need, she says, to think differently and begin to “conceive of alternative futures.” That’s why, later in the course, we’ll ponder varieties of “ecotopia.”
The “Great Transition” to a very different way of life, to deliberately-restrained levels of consumption, to less driving and flying, to local food and, really, local everything (except thinking), to “selective degrowth,” and maybe even to fewer “shitty jobs” and more access to health care, education, food, clean water… is it only a dream? Or is it about to become a real fight?

5:30/5:42, 75/93/71, 7:16

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Walking to the stars

August 29, 2016

What a gorgeous, beckoning crescent moon out here in this morning’s pre-dawn.

In CoPhi we’re talking walking today, with side-orders of space-faring and belief-sharing.

We’ll discuss the first two chapters of Frederic Gros’s Philosophy of Walking, and Christopher Orlet’s Gymnasiums of the Mind

We’ll also consider these old posts and  this one on walking and believing (and the ongoing This I Believe franchise), Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and Sagan heir Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Why exploring space still matters. The common thread? Some of us fervently believe, with Nietzsche, Rousseau, and so many others, that the best ideas first come while walking. Some of us also believe we should expand our range to include more distant turf, over the Terran horizon. I’m a believer.

Given the vast scale of the cosmos, and the fact that we’ve really only just learned to walk, “we” means future humans. But the horizon just came a lot closer, with the discovery of our sister planet at Proxima Centauri. By present propulsion technology, of course, Proxima Centauri is NOT in such close proximity. It’s 80,000 years away. If that Russian billionaire figures out how to boost those iPhone-size probes to a fifth of the speed of light they’ll get there in 20 years. This is less about us getting there, than about us getting excited about our great-great…grandchildren getting there, and for that even to be possible we have to get excited about sustaining this planet, here and now. An Exoplanet Too Far

Neil Tyson believes a redoubling of our efforts in space would be the most practical investment we could ever make in our species.

‘We need to double NASA’s budget because not only is it the grandest epic adventure a human being can undertake, not only would the people who led this adventure be the ones we end up building statues to and naming high schools after and becoming the next generation’s Mercury 7 as role models, not only will there be spinoff products from these discoveries, but what’s more important than all of those, what’s more practical than all of those, is that he will transform the economy into one that will lead the world once again rather than trail the world as we are inevitably going to be doing over the next decade.'”

And it’ll give us peripatetics a lot more room to roam.

The cosmic perspective need not lead to resignation and existential despair, of the sort hinted in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” – “For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space…” -and made light of in his “Why I Am Not a Christian” – “Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence…”

It all began with one small step. Between now and the end of eternity, we have countless more steps to enjoy. Let’s go.

And bring a book. I recommend Five Billion Years of Solitude: the Search for Life Among the Stars by Lee Billings.

5:45/6:18, 73/90, 7:17

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Alt-right all wrong

August 26, 2016

She’s right.

From the start, Donald Drumpf has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia.
He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America’s two major political parties.
His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous.
In just the past week, under the guise of “outreach” to African Americans, Drumpf has stood up in front of largely white audiences and described black communities in insulting and ignorant terms:
“Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing. No homes. No ownership.
Crime at levels nobody has seen… Right now, you walk down the street, you get shot.”
Those are his words.
Donald Drumpf misses so much.
He doesn’t see the success of black leaders in every field…
The vibrancy of black-owned businesses…Or the strength of the black church…
He doesn’t see the excellence of historically black colleges and universities or the pride of black parents watching their children thrive…And he certainly doesn’t have any solutions to take on the reality of systemic racism and create more equity and opportunity in communities of color.
It takes a lot of nerve to ask people he’s ignored and mistreated for decades, “What do you have to lose?” The answer is everything!

Full text

5:50/6:16, 75/93, 7:21

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Klein’s intro

August 25, 2016

 Today in Environmental Ethics we begin Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, led by two epigraphs.

The first, from a past director of the Rainforest Action Network, insists that climate change is but the tip of an iceberg. “What we’re really talking about… is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet.” That’s a lot more change than most of us want to believe in, and Klein acknowledges that until recently she was herself a kind of Denialist – not the Drumpf kind, drumming up conspiracy theories and anti-science absurdities, confusing occasional cool spells (like Monday’s here) with a cooling climate. She was the kind who just couldn’t bear to look hard at the full implications of our situation because they threaten everything about our way of life.

One of the more common forms of denial, with “one eye tightly shut,” is to look at the big picture but then to look away and “focus on ourselves.” It’s understandable, and self-therapeutics is not a bad place to start. Consciousness-raising, locavore eating, biking and pooling instead of driving are all good. Just not good enough, if we’re to get to the root of the problem. Part of us would rather just forget about it. 

 So why do we engage in ecological amnesia? “We deny because we fear…” In class last time someone said fear was the problem, but maybe it’s the canary in the coal mine. Maybe we fear the truth, and the truth will set us free.

 Or if not the truth per se, then a mass movement of regular people who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take politicians’ pusillanimous procrastination any more.

The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference pledged (only verbally) to accept a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F.) We’re on track for catastrophically more. Last month was the hottest yet. We’re facing “an existential crisis for the human species.”

Or we could think of it as a last-ditch opportunity. But it will only be that if we can shake our “fetish of centrism” and give up the illusion that we can compromise with the profiteers who want to haul every last ounce of carbon out of the earth and burn it up. That means a shift from corporations to communities, not just in quaint isolated communities like Ashton Hayes but all over.
The other opening epigraph is from Kim Stanley Robinson, author of  the ecotopian Pacific Edge who says  “comprehensively changing capitalism” is more difficult to imagine than just about anything. Is that a challenge and an opportunity, or just a big raspberry to us all?

After talking yesterday about the 10,000 year clock and the investment in our future it symbolizes, I recalled Michael Chabon’s essay “The Omega Glory.” It concludes,

When I told my son about the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully, and we looked at the pictures on the Long Now Foundation’s website. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free. And I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.

That’s what I was trying to say, when I said it’s intuitive to me that if we care about our children, about the next generation, then it’s a small next step to care about the long-term fate of life on Earth and about all generations. That’s the bet we take, when we have children. And we do all have children. They’re all ours, we’re theirs. We’re all in this ship together. Hope it stays afloat.

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Russell’s intro

August 24, 2016

We’re off, with Bertrand Russell’s introductory chapter in his History. There we’re cautioned against the “impertinent insolence towards the universe” of dogmatic theology, and directed instead to the gray space between certainty and paralysis that good philosophers occupy. Then we’re told that the Stoics presaged Christianity, that Montaigne’s “fruitful disorder” made him a representative man of his age, that Descartes’ subjectivist inflation of ego as philosophic method was insanely contrary to common sense, and that every community must negotiate the extreme opposite dangers of either too stultifying a regard for tradition or too much personal independence.

Those are just a few of the countless sharp opinions Russell will deliver, with audacity and biting wit, in this narrative. Another: that philosophy occupies a No Man’s Land between theology and science. So, we’ll wonder: are no theologians or scientists philosophers? Is there more than one way to be a philosopher? Here I’ll invoke Professor James’s observation that we all have some implicit philosophy or other. For a No Man’s Land, it’s pretty crowded.

Other points to ponder, prompted by this chapter: Is there any higher duty than that to one’s fellow humans? What do we owe the state, our contemporaries, our successors? In what specific ways should it matter to us that we’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving, on a distant spiral arm of a relatively nondescript galaxy, one among trillions? Ought we ever to acknowledge the authority of any individual or institution, to settle matters of belief and conscience? (Good question to ask on the anniversary of the first edition of the Gutenberg Bible.)

Some students will become frustrated with all these questions. I’ll happily suggest answers, and will not hesitate to advocate for my own. But the key takeaway today is that in philosophy the questions always outpace the answers, and we’re okay with that. Love it, in fact.

5:30/6:15, 72/93, 7:24

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Visions of Ecotopia

August 23, 2016

Two more Honors CoPhi classes today, then Environmental Ethics. There we’ll be looking for hope, amidst all the ominous portents of planetary catastrophe we’ve noted lately. July apparently was the warmest month on record, ever. The heat is on. (Yesterday happened to be a marvelously mild respite, in middle Tennessee. Weather’s not climate.)

But is hope vanishing? Naomi Klen says wait a minute, “we can seize the existential crisis of climate change to transform our failed economic system into something radically better.” It’s just barely possible, at least through 2017. Grasping and running with possibility is what philosophy is all about. Just look at what this little English village has done. Look what’s in the wind just offshore.

Our next author, Tim Flannery, says “there is also diverse, effective, and innovative activity toward cutting carbon dioxide emissions.” If we can do that, in tandem with moving towards renewable energy sources, there may indeed be hope for something radically better.

Then we’ll revisit the late Ernest Callenbach’s vision of Ecotopia, because hope requires vision. Without it, the people proverbially perish. “The novel, now being rediscovered, speaks to our ecological present: in the flush of a financial crisis, the Pacific Northwest secedes from the United States, and its citizens establish a sustainable economy, a cross between Scandinavian socialism and Northern California back-to-the-landism, with the custom — years before the environmental writer Michael Pollan began his campaign — to eat local.”
And then, my hope is that the class will decide to read at least one more text in November before our curtain falls. My candidates, pending a class vote:
  • The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand – “How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common,” asks Stewart Brand, “instead of difficult and rare?” Or, to put it another way, how does one get people to develop a natural perspective of their present moment that extends beyond a few days in either direction? The Clock of the Long Now describes a potential solution…”
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert – “She makes an irrefutable case that what we are doing to cause a sixth mass extinction is clearly wrong. And she makes it clear that doing what is right means accelerating our transition to a more sustainable world.”
  • Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson – “Robinson presents us with three options of how the future might be, and some concrete ideas for making the third (and best) future come true… his most important idea seems to be that we should limit the size of corporations.”
  • OR all of the above, via crowdsourcing & division of labor
  • OR none…
So we’ll begin the conversation today. Full of hope, can’t wait.

5:20/6:14, 63/89, 7:25

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Opening Day

August 22, 2016

Another one again, already. Meeting the first of three Honors Intro sections today. Hooray.

We’ll introduce ourselves in the usual way: Who are you? Why are you here?

I’ll explain why I call the Intro to Philosophy course CoPhilosophy: because we’re all in it together, and because I agree with William James’s collaborative approach: “The pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of co…”

And, we’ll remind ourselves that there should be far more to a university education than just a quick crash-course in vocational credentialing. Higher education is supposed to equip us to become good people leading good lives, not just good consumers earning good salaries. It’s supposed to make us successful in the fullest sense, not in the constricted way James ridiculed in a wonderfully acidic epistle to H.G. Wells: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”

Our goal, simply put, is success at school as the first step on the road to non-squalid success in life. That’s what college is for.

One clear mark of our success in CoPhilosophy will be the enhanced ability to perceive and consider alternative points of view, to sustain amicably constructive conversation in the face of dissent. To that end, and now that “an Authorized Employee may carry a concealed handgun on MTSU property,” I’m in the market for one of these:

Image result for hhgtg pov gun

POV gun

It’s Annie Proulx’s birthday. She “dropped out of a Ph.D. program after realizing she wasn’t fit for the academic life. She said: ‘I’m not a person who works well with others. Having to get along with people you don’t respect very much, having to deal with a bureaucracy, just the whole weight of idiots turned me off.’”

She’d probably not be a very good CoPhilosopher, with that attitude, but I have to admit – even on Opening Day – that sometimes I know just what she means. Don’t point that thing at me.

6:00/6:13, 62/83, 7:27

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Golden cave

August 10, 2016

Back from Illinois, helping Older Daughter settle in for senior year. Time flies faster and faster.

We returned to another storm-induced cable service disruption. Not wanting to miss the Olympics,  we headed to the nearest sports cave. What a metaphor,  so many flickering, captivating shadowy images on the walls all around. It was Sam’s, but it coulda been Plato’s.

Got there just in time to experience the crowd’s frenzied cheering reaction to Michael Phelps’ and Katie Ledecky’s wins. Heard no chants of U-S-A (the TV sound was down), but if our heroes had been swimming for Canada or Belarus it would have been a different scene entirely. We won gold last night, was the clear implication. Add another medal to our total.

Wouldn’t it be nice, if we could all learn to cheer like that for all the winners of every nationality, and if every winner would be gracious enough in victory to deserve all those cheers?

6 am/6:03, 76/91, 7:41

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Shelley’s truth & Satchmo’s love

August 4, 2016

Good words from two radically different, astonishingly creative people on their birthday:

“Do it now — write nothing but what your conviction of its truth inspires you to write.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret.” Louis Armstrong

Simple expressions, to the world, of what it needs now.

In that spirit, listen to what my favorite septuagenerian student – “Donald in Murfreesboro TN” – said to On Point’s radio audience Tuesday morning, 18 minutes in. His point: we all have a lot to offer, if we’re motivated by truth and love.

5:53/5:59, 74/86/72, 7:48

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