Archive for September, 2018

I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Morning poems from Merwin

September 30, 2018

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Morning poems from Merwin

September 30, 2018

Dew Light

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
“Dew Light” by W.S. Merwin from The Moon Before Morning. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. 

Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone
“Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning” by W.S. Merwin from Garden Time. © Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

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RT @JohnKaag: This is how HIKING WITH NIETZSCHE begins, how it began. @fsgbooks @philosophybites

September 29, 2018

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RT @FinbarrCurtis: Any professor who has ever had a grade dispute with a frat boy has seen Brett Kavanaugh answer questions before.

September 28, 2018

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RT @NewYorker: What we witnessed on Thursday was the Republican Party testing how far its politics of entitlement can go. And there is no limit.

September 27, 2018

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“Tennessee values” apparently discount honesty, uphold misogyny, wink at wealthy white privilege. Did you pay any attention at all to today’s testimony, @SenBobCorker @LamarAlexander?

September 27, 2018

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“it’s while watching his daughter blissfully gather woodland wildflowers or a shepherd contentedly eating a hunk of cheese while checking his flock that he experiences the most resonant moments of grace and insight”-moments that would have eluded Nietzsche’s understanding

September 27, 2018

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@philosophybites If I had only 30 days? I’d probably not waste any of them on the Kavanaugh nomination. But what would Samuel Scheffler say? Or Aristotle?

September 27, 2018

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Aristotle

September 26, 2018

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September 26, 2018
An old post:

Today in CoPhi it’s our first pass at Aristotle. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer” (or a spring-were the Greeks really so vague about the seasons as these alternative translations suggest?) was his most poetic observation by far.

 If then the work of Man is a working of the soul in accordance with reason, or at least not independently of reason… and we assume the work of Man to be life of a certain kind, that is to say a working of the soul, and actions with reason, and of a good man to do these things well and nobly, and in fact everything is finished off well in the way of the excellence which peculiarly belongs to it: if all this is so, then the Good of Man comes to be “a working of the Soul in the way of Excellence,” or, if Excellence admits of degrees, in the way of the best and most perfect Excellence.

And we must add, in a complete life; for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.

Happiness is far more than the sum of its parts, it’s a quality of soul steeped in a lifetime of habitual virtue. Or so we say, when interchanging “happiness” with “eudaimonia.” Flourishing or well-being are better substitutes. By whatever name, though, Aristotle’s saying the good life takes time, possibly more time than a lifetime affords. If your child suffers a tragic and premature end, even after you’ve gone, your life has suffered diminution. In some non-trivial sense your well-being has taken a hit, your flourishing has foundered.

From 335 B.C. to 323 B.C. (in which latter year Alexander died), Aristotle lived at Athens. It was during these twelve years that he founded his school and wrote most of his books. At the death of Alexander, the Athenians rebelled, and turned on his friends, including Aristotle, who was indicted for impiety, but, unlike Socrates, fled to avoid punishment. In the next year ( 322) he died. Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm. 

Russell didn’t much like Aristotle’s perennial quest for the “mean” between extremes, particularly when applied to truth and other intellectual virtues. But splitting the difference between excess and deficiency is often the right strategy in life.

…with respect to acting in the face of danger, courage {Gk. ανδρεια [andreia]} is a mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice; with respect to the enjoyment of pleasures, temperance {Gk. σωφρσυνη [sophrosúnê]} is a mean between the excess of intemperance and the deficiency of insensibility; with respect to spending money, generosity is a mean between the excess of wastefulness and the deficiency of stinginess; with respect to relations with strangers, being friendly is a mean between the excess of being ingratiating and the deficiency of being surly; and with respect to self-esteem, magnanimity {Gk. μεγαλοψυχι&alpha [megalopsychia]} is a mean between the excess of vanity and the deficiency of pusillanimity.

So many of the circumstances of life are beyond our control, on either side of the grave. Can we increase our chance of eudaimonia, or must we just learn to accept our fate and let happiness happen or not? Aristotle says we can take steps to develop our character, form strong habits, and live the good life. This is only partly subject to our control, since much depends on the quality of our early nurture. Some overcome adverse beginnings, others are derailed. Life and luck are unfair.

And that’s why Aristotle was so concerned to create a just society, a polis capable of nurturing and supporting all its citizens (except slaves and women-in this regard Plato scores over his pupil). “We live together, and need to find our happiness by interacting well with those around us in a well-ordered state.” If you choose to go it alone, you may or may not be pleased with your life but you definitely won’t flourish in Aristotle’s terms. 

The middle ages enshrined Aristotle as The Philosopher, the great authority not to be challenged. He would have hated that, inimical as it is to the spirit of free and open debate governed by reason alone.

Only hedonists conflate pleasure and happiness, but that doesn’t mean the relation between them is easy to pin down. Wouldn’t Aristotle admit that it might be possible to indulge the right pleasures at the right time for the right reasons etc., thus acknowledging that the time and place for pleasure is always a matter of judicious discretion? Bertrand Russell seemed to think he would not, and for that reason found the Nichomachean Ethics less than wholly appealing.  “The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seveteenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.” Repulsive!

I would have said tepid, not repulsive, but Russell has a bit of a point. I’ll still line up on Aristotle’s side of the School of Athens, though. Which side are you on?

Today in Fantasyland, speaking of theme parks… “Black America” opened in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. “Black Panther” it wasn’t, staffed as it was with “actual field hands from the cotton belt” and designed to show the slaves’ “happy, careless life.” Right.

Then we learn of a former Tennessee governor and senator who makes Bill Haslam and Bob Corker look pretty good by low-bar comparison who traveled the country with the same fantastic “treacly” message, before Hollywood got in on the whitewash with Birth of a Nation‘s “shameless” celebration of the KKK. In this light it might seem unfair to pick on the south, while the whole country was losing its mind to illusion and delusion. The Mind of the South contended that southerners had a particular “incapacity for the real, a Brobdingnagian talent for the fantastic.”

The modernist New Theology is old by now, still foolishly stoking a simplistic God/Satan struggle for our souls. Other modernists realized Christianity must adapt to the times or be winnowed like every other struggler, bending to the theistic evolutionary hypothesis that evolution was “a new name for ‘creation’ rather than its denial. But Billy Sunday’s old-time religion (“I don’t believe your own bastard theory of evolution”) captured a greater share of the credulity market and set the stage for Dayton, Tennessee, 1925.  What a circus. “It was absurd that ‘the book of Genesis, written when everybody thought the world was flat,’ should refute science.” Was and is. But some people evidently just don’t mind living a contradiction, or in defiance of their time.

Image result for flat earth cartoon new yorker

In A&P, we’re introduced to Pam’s Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, who run booths at the fair and respond to perplexed fair-goers who ask “What happened?” Nothing, Pam said, she just didn’t get it – didn’t get all the “personal relationship with Jeses” talk. She “figured I just needed religion glasses” – the converse of Julia Sweeney’s not-believing-in-God glasses. Maybe we’d all benefit from a peek through someone else’s prescriptive lenses.

Pam had never met an atheist before she got to college. I wonder how many of our students would say the same? And what does it say about the insularity of our communities, and the depths of our xenophobias, that so many would?

I also wonder if it’s generally true that atheists are less concerned with what people think, that they’re inherently less conformist? Some atheists do seem to care a great deal about what other atheists think, about what others who conform to their own notions think.

It’s harder to demonize people when you know them, and know you know them. That’s why I finally decided to stop hedging about it. Some of my best friends AND worst enemies, etc. But there’s a “murky line” between discussing, preselytizing, and harassing. Everybody’s on guard these days, especially in the workplace, about what they say and how it might be construed. So coming out is getting both easier and more fraught, simultaneously.

Dr. Sam the oncologist pulls no punches. Why do the faithful not find their professedly joyous lives sufficient armor against the faithless? Why are they so offended and agitated by his “blasphemy”? His Amarillo Atheists Society was cute in its FSM pastafarian re-branding, wasn’t it?

Image result for pastafarians

Dr. Sam addresses one of our Bioethics issues, the withholding of medical treatment from children on religious grounds, in his blunt fashion. “You’re free to kill yourself… but for your children it is child abuse.” He points out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses who resist blood transfusion have read an awful lot into their scripture.

Camilo the clinical psychologist’s life changed when he read The End of Faith by Sam Harris. It was the first, in the spate of Four Horsemen bombshells, if not the best.

Clinical psychologists aren’t the only straddlers who try to uphold scientific commitment to evidence, facts, reality, and truth “while at the same time being epistemic and moral relativists,” but they really should know better.


Aristotle redux

Not to bury the lede, I must briefly preempt The Philosopher to report my good news: I’m here today. There was a searing moment during my commute Tuesday night when that seemed, for an instant, improbable.

On my way home from Murfreesboro to Nashville at around 9 pm I was involved in a 3-vehicle collision on I-24. One was a FedEx truck that slammed into my passenger side while swerving to avoid the other car. I spun completely around a couple of times before coming to a dead stop straddling two lanes in the middle of the interstate as traffic continued to whiz by in the inner and outer lanes, time enough to think “this is how it ends”… but I’m still here, I’m not quite sure how, but nobody was injured. The other car ended up alongside facing the other direction, full and with small children crying in terror. If the truck hadn’t come to a stop just behind us, diverting oncoming traffic, I doubt I’d be here today.

So, I just want to register a profound sense of gratitude that we’re all still here drawing breath, and urge you all to be careful out there. I’ve been running up and down that highway all these years, and maybe had become a bit complacent. It’s useful to be reminded that we’re always potentially a swerve away from our last commute.

The Corolla I’ve been pedaling for almost ten years is not looking good, but on the lighter side: Younger Daughter’s very jealous of my rental, which (after seeing a photo) she describes as “beautiful and big and safe”-it’s a Jeep Wrangler. My sister urges me to consider a truck or a Volvo, something sturdy. I’m honestly not convinced it would have made any difference last night, and I note that Volvo’s going all electric soon. I’ve had my heart set on a Leaf or a Bolt. But I’m thinking about it.

The French philosopher Montaigne fell off his horse and nearly died one day, 500 years ago. But the next day he felt like he had a new lease on life. That’s me, today and (I must not ever again forget) every day: lucky. “Don’t worry about death,” just get on with living… and loving life. 

And drive defensively.
Image result for montaigne don't worry about death

Now, more Aristotle today in CoPhi. The “research institute” and peripatetic academy he called the Lyceum was into everything from anatomy to zoology, so I’m sure he and his followers would have had said something to say about my Near Death Experience.

Wonder what he’d say about America’s epidemic of gun violence, and the latest horrific atrocity. He’d be appalled, of course, by the violence itself and by the immediate swirl of fake news about it on social media. And he’d want to know what, at long last, how many children have to get shot before we finally try to do something about it.

Our Philosopher is the star, by the way, of a new musical tour de force based on his Poetics and Rhetoric, “addressing language’s power to influence others, for good or evil” and wondering “How can we persuade if the subject is complex and, as is so often the case, our listeners incapable of following a long chain of reasoning?” And, if they don’t really value the truth as much as he does?

Aristotle, dubbed by Dante “master of those who know,” loved Plato but he loved truth more. “All men by nature desire to know.” I don’t know about that. In our time we’re seeing strong confirmation for the proposition that all desire to assert what they believe as if they knew it, or as if knowledge just meant firm conviction and not justified true belief. If we all had a natural instinct for truth we’d have a lot less talk about alt-facts. The reality-based community would feel a lot more secure and facts would change our minds. Summarizing the latest literature on confirmation (“myside”) bias and irrationality Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding”… And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Drumpf Administration.

…Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science…

“The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring.

 Aristotle may have been naive about all this, but knowing that we’re prone to “knowing” things that just ain’t so should reassure us that real knowledge is still a reasonable aspiration worth fighting for.
“Aristotle was much too down to earth” to go in for eternal Forms or absolute Anythings. “The Cave was not so bad once you turned the lights on” – did Dumbledore say that? Look in all the dark corners, “for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.” 
Aristotle’s latter-day critics point to his un-Darwinian emphasis on teleology in nature, but in fact he was “stumbling along the right track.” Lions have sharp teeth because sharp teeth help lions survive and multiply, not because a cosmic design ruled out toothless lions.* It’s important to distinguish “how come” questions from “what for” questions, as Professor Dennett said at the Googleplex, and to admit the possibility of design without a designer.

He’s also concerned about our current rash of unreason, telling an interviewer “the real danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else can spread the rumour that you’re fake news. We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages.” Ironic. The middle ages distorted and perverted Aristotle’s respect for truth and facts. Is the postmodern age about to sin against his philosophy again?

Aristotle is generally very good at distinguishing different kinds of question, with respect to causes. They are material, formal, final, and efficient, respectively concerning what things are made of, how they’re formed, what purposes they serve, and what precipitated and changed them). Change is a big reality for Aristotle, always involving somthing that changes in both its before- and after-modalities, revealing potentiality and actuality. “No logical mystery there.”

God might be a mystery, though it mystifies some that Aristotle’s God thinks so much about Himself. “The idea that there was a being who one morning conjured up the universe out of nothing and then busied himself handing out rewards and punishments to its measly inhabitants” did not mystify The Philosopher, it annoyed him.

The fundamental type of existence for Aristotle is not to be found in Plato’s self-subsisting world of eternal Ideas or Forms, it’s just ordinary things – trees, rocks, plants, animals. The former “puts the cart before the horse” and tempts me to trot out that bad old Descartes pun too soon. Instead I’ll just put a few questions in the spirit of the great founding empiricist. Would you rather attend Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum? Have you ever sharply disagreed with a teacher whom you nonetheless deeply admired? Is art really a “cave within a cave”, or a source of light and truth?

Speaking of “language’s power to influence others”…

In Fantasyland today, we go to the movies. (Last night Older Daughter and I went to see “The Darkest Hour,” wherein Winston Churchill deployed the English language and sent it successfully into battle.) Cinema narrows the gap between fantasy and reality, magically transporting us into other worlds. Good literature does that too, but there’s something peculiarly magical about the silver screen. William James said it produces “hallucinations and illusions [as] vivid as realities.” What would he say about VR? What would Aristotle? Plato, we know, would not approve of its un-reality. But sometimes nothing tells the truth like fiction.

And then there’s the world of advertizing. It also spins fantasies, for a profit. Don Draper didn’t really want to teach the world to sing, he wanted the world to sing his jingle and buy his client’s product. But as fantasies go, it’s pretty alluring. Ommm…

Orson Welles’ Martians seem pretty benign, in retrospect, compared to Nazis then and now.

Celebrity culture may seem benign, but hasn’t it really distracted us dangerously from the proper focus of democratic life?

In A&P, John thinks it’s possible to talk about our opinions openly without getting into a big fight if we just keep it “personal, accurate, but not universal.” He finds atheist humor “a good icebreaker.” That’s why I keep recommending Julia Sweeney. “Not believing in God is one thing… but an ATHEIST?!” That was her Mom, as I recall. And her Dad: “Don’t come to my funeral.” To which Julia wished she’d replied: “Just try and stop me!”

Are more than half of millennials disenchanted with religion? That sounds like a movement, if it finds someplace to take  that disenchantment.

Are theists and atheists “similarly skilled at finding meaning in life and self-actualization”? It depends on what you mean by “similarly”… and “skilled”… and “meaning”…

Ulla may be my favorite Atheists in America testifier“I went to services a few times at a local Unitarian church… I look at pictures sent back by the Hubble space telescope […&] find it  inconceivable that people believe that this force we are witnessing is God’s creation.” But she meets other opinions with an indulgent smile.

And, on this day after the passing of Rev. Graham: “I watched an interview with Billy Graham’s daughter, who stated that you couldn’t be wise unless you believe in God. In view of that, I’m doubly glad that her father’s teachings had but a fleeting influence on me.” Me too.

Betty cowered between hymns by her Presbyterian choir, convinced “they were the Lord’s spies  checking on my behavior.” He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…

Like Ulla, Betty accepts others’ prayers graciously.-more graciously, certainly, than Daniel Dennett when he asked his divine solicitors if they also intended to sacrifice a goat on his behalf. (In his defense, he was trying to “break the spell” of magical thinking over the prayer-based community.) But Betty also reads and thinks, and shows you can break your own spell without depriving others’ of theirs. Live and let live, to the limits of mutual tolerance.

Margaret’s Congregationalist-Universalist father believed in anyone gets to go the an afterlife, pretty much everyone should. Good for him.

I often reference Dr. House, in Bioethics. He’s one of the few atheists portrayed in American pop culture, and he perpetrates a stereotype of atheists as bitter, misanthropic cynics. Even so, he usually saves his patients.

Margaret gets the last word in this book, which nicely punctuates my highway escapade. “I’m not afraid of death since I don’t believe in an afterlife; I’m just not ready to go yet.” That’s it, exactly.

What do you think, Susan Jacoby?

And what do you think about euthanasia, Bioethics?


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