Archive for March, 2017

Up@dawn 2.0

March 25, 2017

Find continuing reflections caught at daybreak at http://jposopher.blogspot.com/

Middle Ages

March 21, 2017

Back from Birmingham, where I was pleased to meet John Kaag and thank him for his American Philosophy: A Love Story“Looking back, I had the realization that at one point in the not-so-distant past, philosophy wasn’t the sort of thing that was discussed only at formal conferences and in arcane journals. It was exchanged over dinner, between families. It was the stuff of everyday life.” And, “The love of wisdom was not bound in academic journals that no one read; it rather permeated all aspects of human existence.”

Then, I contributed my small bit to the William James Society’s panel discussion of immortality and “Existential Pluralism” and reaffirmed our continuing commitment as public philosophers to the ongoing project of constructively melding and applying American philosophy’s traditional elements – pragmatism, pluralism, radical empiricism, and especially meliorism. Some of my friends find it very difficult to do that, on paper. In practice, and in the spirit of James, I don’t see how we can possibly fail to try. 

I’m with him: “I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world’s forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not?” Only time and experience will finally tell. In the meantime, we must remember: “The inner significance of other lives exceeds all our powers of sympathy and insight. If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives.”  Let us not let “blindness lay down the law to sight.” And let us not stamp out possibilities, prematurely. The most compelling and most vulvnerable possibility these days, surely, is the very continuation of lives worth living. The really vital question persists: what is life going to make of itself, on this earth of things? That’s the existential question.
In late antiquity and the middle ages the big questions tended to be more about life’s rumored sequel and how to achieve it. Augustine first thought you had to make alliance with the forces of good, in their death struggle with the forces of darkness. He was on the right track, I tend to think, before his big conversion. He was right to suppose that our side needs all good hands on deck, to resist and overcome evil. He put that conversion off as long as he could, praying for purity but only in due course. For the record, though: I don’t think he was right to think of our carnal condition as an entombment. Incorporeal souls sow no wild oats, ascetics enjoy few existential delights.


So, buoyed by Platonism, he “put all forms of materialism firmly behind him” and “turned back the clock of intelletcual history.” The old Greek commitment to reason was not finally comforting enough to him. “He returned to a version of the comforting supernatural stories which most of the first philosophers sought to dispense with, or at least to rationalize.”
Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy dialogue found its own form of comfort, not in Augustine’s Christianity but in Lady Philosophy’s timeless stoicism. God (or Good?) sees all in a single atemporal sweep, “at a go,” and thus somehow leaves the hapless victim of tortured persecution and execution as free as it found him. He can still choose to be “philosophical” about every misfortune, even to his dying breath on the rack. His freedom’s a lot like Kris Kristofferson’s and Janis Joplin’s, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Anselm’s God, “than which nothing greater can be conceived,” and his famous “proof” thereof, is another of those notorious sleights of hand made to do heavy philosophical lifting with nothing more muscular than verbiage. It’s still shocking to me, how many bright people (including young Russell, briefly) it’s seduced. 


Speaking of great misfortune, poor Abelard’s is painful to ponder. Gottlieb blames “his scholarly prowess and his passionate involvement with logic” for emboldening him to his own seduction. How ironic, that he would go on to make his mark as “the first serious moral philosopher of medieval times” and “to apply rational analysis to the nature of moral goodness.” Too little, too late.

Moses Maimonides did not address Abelard’s peculiar form of perplexity but did try to bring philosophy, science, and religion together. “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” But try telling that to the world. He was right, though. “You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” But, Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”

He was onto confirmation bias early. “We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it. […] The same is the case with those opinions of man to which he has been accustomed from his youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views.”

Was he really the first to say this?: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Did he anticipate James’s Will to Believe notion that “our errors are not such awfully solemn things”? “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

He was sort of a bioethicist before his time: The physician should not treat the disease but the patient who is suffering from it.” And, “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.” Actually that might have helped Abelard, with a little timely saltpeter in his diet.

William of Ockham’s famous “razor” said we should keep our theories simple, our ontology thin. Remember Goober’s beard?
Remember Buridan’s Ass? Apparently “no such animal appears in his writings.” Too bad.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic fri ar, but he also had a vivd scifi imagination. He said there must be other worlds and “countless suns” out there in the Void, “innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow.” We’ve only confirmed that in the past twenty years or so. It (and other heresies) got him torched in 1600. Neil Tyson tells his story.

Finally today, Aquinas. His First Cause Argument, echoing Aristotle, said a never-ending series of causes and effects would lead to an unacceptable regress. The first term in any explanatory sequence, he thought, has to be self-evident. But is that itself self-evident?

More questions: Can the definition of a word prove anything about the world? Is theoretical simplicity always better, even if the universe is complex? Does the possibility of other worlds somehow diminish humanity? Which is more plausible, that God exists but is not more powerful than Satan, or that neither God nor Satan exists? Why? Are supernatural stories of faith, redemption, and salvation comforting to you than the power of reason and evidence? And what do you say to Carl Sagan?:

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” 

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Advancing American Philosophy in Alabama

March 17, 2017
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Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy
44th Annual meeting
March 16-18, 2017
Conference program
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Pinhead dancers and friendly ghosts

March 14, 2017

Back from the break, diving into neo-Platonism and scholasticism, and a report on Harry Frankfurt’s Bullshit (“On Bullshit” was originally penned in ’86 and published in ’05). “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this.” Yes, everyone. Especially the purveyors, who don’t really believe their own horse hockey. Do they? Or care about it, so long as it’s “believable” enough to support the brand? Frankfurt, by the way, also wrote the natural sequel: “On Truth“… boy do we need that now more than ever!

Also, reports are scheduled on Peter Singer’s Ethics in the Real World and (with Descartes and his “what if I’m dreaming?” worry in mind) Inception (“Forget the end of the film. Think about the beginning and the real world…”). Maybe Nigel Warburton’s Classics too. And the Simpsons? Or haven’t we already done them?

The year 529 is a semi-arbitrary but convenient milestone, with Emperor Justinian’s shuttering of the philosophical schools in Athens ushering in a millennium of intellectual somnambulism. The Sleeping Beauty version of this narrative says philosophy pricked its finger on Christianity and awaited an awakening buss from its aforementioned French rationalist Prince Rene in the 17th century.

Looking back from then, Francis Bacon would complain of “cobwebs of learning” and Thomas Hobbes would say the problem was Roman religion’s sponsorship of “Aristotelity”-which is is not Aristotelianism but its unthinking authoritarian parody, made to conform with Church dogma and stripped of curiosity. 
It needn’t have been so. A respectful Aristotelianism fused with theology might have had wonderful discursive results, with talk of soul and sin leading seamlessly into fruitful reflections on mind-body and free will. Instead, “Christians were required to believe, for example, that a piece of wafer could become flesh… and that God could become three persons at once.” 

Were? Past tense?  Let’s not be smug, standing here potentially on the precipice of another Dark Ages “led” by benighted Climate and Science Deniers, Conspiracy Kooks, and ethnic chauvinists. Sad. Scary. Wonder what Stephen King thinks of Steve King? Who’s scarier? No contest.
“By the year 1000, medicine, physics, astronomy, biology and indeed all branches of theoretical knowledge except theology had virtually collapsed. Even the few relatively educated men, holed up in mosasteries, knew markedly less than many Greeks had done eight centuries earlier… In short, Christendom was colossally ignorant.”
The cult of Aristotle was sloppy, and inattentive to their nPhilosopher’s actual views. Medieval Christians “knew” that the soul survives death. Aristotle said it didn’t, his God was disinterested in humans, and he was dubious about that wafer. We must not forget that “he himself was animated by the spirit of open-minded inquiry,” which at its best uses the spoken and printed word to fuel passionate curiosity-not shut it down. So, “the real problem with medieval learning is that the medieval professors allowed themselves to be tyrannized by books… Instead of putting ideas to the test of new experience, they… put them to the test of old books.” Old books are great, but they should never have the last word.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Hint: How many bodies do you need to dance? Call this the Caspar the Friendly Ghost Problem: how can Caspar move through a wall AND catch a ball? Dan Dennett is “convinced that Descartes’ dualism — the idea that an immaterial mind interacts with a material body — was a ‘cul-de-sac’… ‘There was a latent contradiction built into the very idea of Casper the Friendly Ghost and basically that’s what’s wrong with dualism. Nobody’s ever solved that problem remotely satisfactorily.'” It was an entertaining show, but I recall being perturbed when they interrupted it one day to break the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.

I want to get a word in for Philo of Alexandria, the millennial philosopher with the perfect name who nowadays gets little attention or respect. He began, and a pagan teacher named Alcinous continued, “a tradition of marrying holy scriptures to Greek philosophy” with the claim that the God of scripture is identical with the Good of Plato. (“Plato himself would have insisted that they were utterly different.) Like many arranged marriages, these were often bereft of passion and hard to sustain. But it was, and for some still is, a popular tradition.

Another Diogenes (not the Dog Philosopher) created “the strangest document in the history of philosophy” (c.120 AD) with a huge Vietnam Memorial-like colonnade inscribed with Epicurean wisdom updated to catch the zeitgeist of “salvation” through philosophy. That’s not really what Epicurus was talking about. 

This is another arranged marriage likely to founder, unless we understand that those who’ve attained ataraxia consider themselves already “saved,” not lost. They aren’t looking to go anywhere. As Jennifer Michael Hecht says, Epicureans aren’t looking for a path out of the forest. They just wanted to hang a “Home Sweet Home” sign on a tree” and chill. “…pick some blueberries, sit beneath a tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze… Just try to have a good time.”

Plotinus’s “Neoplatonism” was trying to eff the ineffable, to describe the indescribable. Futility, thy name is Plotinus. It all comes down (or goes up?) to The One, for him. But it’s all the same, isn’t it, in this Heraclitean flux? But The One is beyond being. Doesn’t seem like there’d be much more to say. Just, “withdraw into yourself and look.” 

When he withdrew and looked, Plotinus claimed to see that  “the world is finite, harmonious, and good,” that it possesses a purchase on divine perfection by virtue of the continuous “emanations” therefrom that reach even us. How does he know that? “The stars are like letters that inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky. Everything in the world is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together.” Yes, but… You really get all that from a sweep of introspection, Plotinus? Why don’t I? Why doesn’t everyone? Is it possible you’re reading some things into your account, engaging in a bit of wishful thinking? And engaging in a bit of corporeal revulsion, “almost ashamed of being in the body”? But how, except with your body, are you going to hammer up a HOME sign, sit under a tree, and chill?  
Proclus of Athens (*412–485 C.E.) was the most authoritative philosopher of late antiquity and played a crucial role in the transmission of Platonic philosophy from antiquity to the Middle Ages.” He was a magical thinker, holding that “the job of philosophy was merely to explain spiritual truths which had already been arrived at by other means” and “treat[ing] the basic premises of his theology as if they were beyond question.” Magical thinking endures in our time. Fortunately, questioners do too.
Lots of good questions suggest themselves today. How do we respect and revere books without being “tyrannized” by them, for instance? How should we think about Caspar? What is “salvation”? What’s the job of philosophy? My answer to the last: to help us figure out how not to be tyrannized, how to think about Caspar, how not to think of ourselves as “lost” so we won’t have to be “saved.”
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Amy Krouse Rosenthal has died. She was not lost. Her remarkable viral essay bespeaks a love of life that was its own saving grace. “Her favorite line from literature, she once said, was in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” as spoken by the character Emily as she bids the world goodbye: ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?’

When she reached 40, Ms. Rosenthal began calculating how many days she had left until she turned 80.

“How many more times, then, do I get to look at a tree?” she asked. “Let’s just say it’s 12,395. Absolutely, that’s a lot, but it’s not infinite, and I’m thinking anything less than infinite is too small a number and not satisfactory. At the very least, I want to look at trees a million more times. Is that too much to ask?”

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Sk(c)eptics

March 2, 2017

Today in CoPhi it’s skeptics. Or sceptics, if you prefer the British spelling. Or you can follow their lead and refuse to commit. “Don’t commit, and you won’t be disappointed.”

I haven’t generally found that to be a reliable guidepost in life, instead taking my cue from the lesson James’s “first act of free will” (noted last time) seems to me to teach: don’t just sit there, stand and select a destination. And get going. As my old pal the Carolina prof says, do something – even if it’s wrong. And as James also said, “our errors surely are not such awfully solemn things.” Lighten up.  Pick a path. Move.
But that’s my therapy, it may not be yours. Some of us really do prefer sitting on a fence, avoiding firm opinions, keeping all accounts open. And there’s no doubt, a healthy dose of skepticism is good for you. But how much is too much? 
My answer is implied by the bumper sticker message on my bulletin board: “even fatalists look both ways before crossing the street.” If you stop looking, you’re either too skeptical or not skeptical enough. Probably a lunatic, too. Or the ruler of the universe. “I say what it occurs to me to say when I think I hear people say things. More I cannot say.”
Point is, we need beliefs to motivate action lest we sit and starve like Buridan‘s ass, or cross paths with a cart and get flattened. Prudence demands commitment. Commitment is no guarantee against error and disappointment, but indifference and non-commitment typically leave us stuck in the middle of the road or drop us off the cliff.

That wasn’t Pyrrho‘s perspective, jay- and cliff-walker though he was. Fortunately for him, he seems always to have had friends steering him from the edge. His prescription – but is a skeptic allowed to prescribe? – was to free yourself from desires, don’t care how things will turn out, persuade yourself that nothing ultimately matters, and you’ll eventually shuck all worry. Or not. If we all were Pyrrho “there wouldn’t be anyone left to protect the Pyrrhonic Sceptics from themselves.” Prudence wins again.
Prudence and moderation. “The point of moderate philosophical scepticism is to get closer to the truth,” or further at least from falsehood and bullshit. Easier said than done, in these alt-fact days of doublespeak. “All the great philosophers have been [moderate] sceptics,” have sought truth and spurned lies, have deployed their baloney detectors and upheld the bar of objective evidence. Sincerity alone won’t cut it.

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These anti-realist doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry… Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial-notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

So, be a skeptic. But to paraphrase David Hume and Jon Batiste, stay human. (“Be a philosopher, but amidst your philosophy be still a man.”)

Read Skeptic magazine, which in the latest issue doubts the possibility of eternal youth and features the parodic perspective of Mr. Deity. Skeptic’s editor Michael Shermer says “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” And, “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know.”

Pyrrho must not have been that crazy, to have lived to nearly ninety. “He did not act carelessly in the details of everyday life,” said a defender, he just suspended judgment as to their ultimate import in the larger truths of things. Or maybe he just wanted to protect his batting average, so to speak. If you never swing, you’ll never miss. But you’ll still strike out if you take too many.

David Hume, again. He was a skeptic but he didn’t let that interfere with living. He ventured opinions but couched them in philosophic humility. He knew we couldn’t all be Pyrrho, for “all action would immediately cease” and “the necessities of nature” would “put an end to [our] miserable existence.” Miserable? He must have been having a bad day. Generally he was of great cheer and humane disposition.

So let’s not throw in the sponge on humanity just yet. What a strange expression, “throwing in the sponge”-it comes from the Roman Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who told a story about a painter who stopped trying so hard to paint the perfect representation of a horse’s mouth and discovered that sometimes it’s best to just let fly. Fling your sponge, let it land where it may. Okay, if you’re just painting. If you’re living a life, though, maybe just a bit less skepticism is prudent.


Is it possible to go through life questioning and doubting everything, committing always to nothing, and holding no firm opinions? Is it desirable or useful to try doing so? And do you know anyone who doesn’t look both ways before crossing the street?
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Happy birthday Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), who said “If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along and you’ll start happening too.” And “It’s opener, out there, in the wide, open air.” And “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” And “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Happy birthday too to Tom Wolfe, who admired the Stoics and asked “What is it you’re looking for in this endless quest? Tranquillity. You think if only you can acquire enough worldly goods, enough recognition, enough eminence, you will be free, there’ll be nothing more to worry about, and instead you become a bigger and bigger slave to how you think others are judging you.” And “One of the few freedoms that we have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to assent to what is true and to deny what is false. Nothing you can give me is worth surrendering that freedom for.”

Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer SimulationFact Check: Drumpf’sFirst Address to Congress
5:30/6:17, 38/54/31, 5:41

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