Archive for the ‘meaning’ Category

A universe not made for us

April 27, 2013

Raining, but it won’t rain us out today. They moved Older Daughter’s final regular-season game up to Friday afternoon, anticipating today’s deluge, and she celebrated Senior Day with a couple of key hits in a decisive 12-2 win. (I know the score, they made me scorekeeper.)

Following Younger Daughter’s big game-tying  hit and game-winning run on Thursday, after her Tigers rallied from a huge deficit against arch-rival Ensworth, it made for a very satisfying conclusion to the Spring softball season.

A happy ending, for sure. Meaningful too?

Well, it meant a lot to those of us who were there, who cared. Could there be any deeper or more cosmic meaning to our happiness?

It may be too big a question for a rainy Saturday morning. We’ll take it up next Fall in The Philosophy of Happiness, with questions like:

 What do we really want from philosophy and religion? Palliatives? Therapy? Comfort? Do we want reassuring fables or an understanding of our actual circumstances? Dismay that the Universe does not conform to our preferences seems childish.

Meanwhile, Carl Sagan says “if we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Beating St. Cecelia and Ensworth were worthy goals. But, what do we really want?


The important thing

December 5, 2012

The last day of class is always bittersweet, when it’s been a good semester. It has been, and it was. To those students who told me they were sad it’s over: the feeling is totally mutual. But you know where to find me, let’s not be strangers.

There were so many strong final report presentations yesterday, on so many sprawling topics: Johnny Cash, Switchfoot, Dungeons & Dragons, Kant and dating (reminds me of the story my old Brooklyn-born prof the “Kant specialist” told on himself of how he met his future wife, despite her serious misunderstanding of his self-introduction-but never mind), Socrates, Snow White & Freemasons (!), Hobbes & Machiavelli & neurolinguistic programming(!!)…

And Malcolm’s (whose surname alone almost merits a passing grade in Philosophy… Ecrasez l’Infame!) on the meaning of life. He talked about TED, Robert WrightMonty Python, George Carlin*, Futurama, and Owen Gingerich, among many others. The Galaxy Song makes him (like Mrs. Brown) feel small and insignificant and “in need of comic relief;” it just makes me grin, and reminds me of what Emily Dickinson said: “the brain is wider than the sky” etc.

*George Carlin was wrong, by the way, though immortally funny: we must save the planet from ourselves.  Nothing else we ever do will mean as much. Please read this and especially this, and let your conscience be your guide.

Most fittingly, Malcolm closed his report (as we closed our survey of the history of philosophy) with Peter Singer. The meaning of life is inseparable from the choices we make.

Well, as I said in that questionnaire: I hope we’ll all choose to go on asking questions, listening to different answers, and thinking. Right, Professor?


Thanks for the memory

November 21, 2012

Life itself is gratifying, of course. But it’s nice at Thanksgiving to have enumerable specific objects of gratitude. Sunshine, laughter, pie and ice cream, Willie Mays and the like do make life worth living.

And this morning I’m specifically grateful for an unexpected find, last night. Rummaging through my library cabinet, I rediscovered a lost and forgotten binder full of my favorite role model secular evolutionist. Through the years I’ve frequently spoken of my first landlord, the kindly and avuncular octogenerian who pulled dollars from my young ears, not long before his death in the ’60s. It’s a mild obsession.

He was, I eventually learned, an eminent figure whose expert testimony had been solicited but then disallowed by the Scopes “Monkey Trial” judge in Dayton, TN in 1925. Dr. Winterton Curtis made a curiously strong impression on me in my earliest days and years. I’ve never quite understood why. Surely it’s a coincidence that I would grow up and  develop a fascination with the evolutionary view of life as part of its deepest meaning?

Well, my new-found binder includes a note from my late father. It betrays an almost mystical suspicion that something more than money was exchanged in those encounters with Dr. C.

“We lived with Dr. Curtis for three years, until my graduation from Veterinary School [at the University of Missouri-Columbia] in 1960. I have no clue if an elderly stranger can affect a small child, but I swear, Phil possesses many of the intellectual attributes of this grand old man. Phil, do you remember him ‘pulling money out of your ears’ and presenting you with it?”

I sure do, Dad. And I’m deeply grateful for the memory.


November 20, 2012

The meaning of life? There’s a Jamesian answer, of course:

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. “What Makes a Life Significant

And a  Deweyan answer too:

“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

James and Dewey were both profoundly impressed by the Darwinian-evolutionary account, then still fresh and exciting in its reconstructive possibilities, of life as an unfolding saga whose ultimate meanings hang in the balance of events to which we are privileged to contribute. They were confident that our “doings and sufferings” on behalf of voluntary ideals are meaningful. Their focus was not on our lowly progenitors, but on the prospective progeny who will come after us and be grateful or not for our contributions to the great story of life.

Some say the story’s too big, the scientific and cosmic vistas too vast to accommodate meaningful lives on the human scale. Carl Sagan, who said so many fine things, disagreed.

“In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe is pathetic. Does life thereby lose all meaning, I think not. I think we make our lives meaningful by the courage of our questions, by the depth of our answers, by how widespread our understanding is of the essential tools for managing our future, for how skeptical we are of those in authority and of our obligation to care for one another.”

Our epic story is a strong candidate for the great unifying meaning of life, drawing together all the separate narratives of our plurality. As Richard Dawkins says: we’re among the lucky few, of all the possible beings  who might have drawn breath in our place but never will, who get a chance to write a few lines of the story.

Our gratitude should know no bounds.

Meaning, suffering, idealism, atheism

November 19, 2012

We finish Philosophy Bites today in CoPhi with John Cottingham on the meaning of life, Stephen Law on the problem of suffering, Keith Ward on eastern idealism, and A.C. Grayling on atheism.

There’s a sequel, Philosophy Bites BackMaybe next year.

“What is the meaning of life? Does it, perhaps, have no meaning at all?” It may have no fixed, final, universal, or intrinsic meaning, but for an emergent and pluralistic species that’s no barrier to emergent meanings, in the plural. Why settle for just one, or even forty-two?  [MoL @dawn] But that’s not to say we can “create our own values,” a la Friedrich Nietzsche. “We have to find value within a given cosmos, a world that is not of our making.” Humility is called for, not arrogant “will to power.”

Cottingham on “Happiness, God, and the Meaning of Life”:

I do continue to think the Pythons pretty well nailed the answer to the meaning of life, if we take the question as asking how practically we should live:

Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

I can confirm Cottingham’s statement about “meaning” in the largest sense being an embarrassing or illicit question amongst many professional academic philosophers. When I found the MoL course in Vandy’s catalog a few years ago it was dusty and moldering. I dusted it off and had a great semester with it. Last thing we read, as I recall, was Viktor Frankl on Man’s Search for Meaning. He rediscovered the wisdom of the Stoics, in the death camps. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Is there a more profoundly human philosophical problem than how to live well, when life itself is tough and tenuous? And when is it not?

Evil or suffering is an existential problem for us all, but it’s a philosophical problem (or a logical one) for those who wish to assert the reconciliation of an omni-propertied God with the facts on the ground. [PoE/suffering @dawn] But let’s not get carried away in the opposite direction. “There’s just too much good stuff in the world”– like rainbows, laughter, sunshine, ice cream, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong— “for this to be plausibly the creation of a supremely powerful, supremely evil being.” Flipped either way, towards good OR evil, the idea of a Supreme Being becomes a joke. So “we should probably do without any gods at all.”

Speaking of “flip,” Bertrand Russell often was. But his rhetorical question about intelligent design is still devastating nonetheless, for the problem of evil and suffering: “Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?”

And Simon Blackburn’s dorm analogy still hits close to home, even though they’ve leveled this one to make room for our new Science Building.

Law’s “evil god challenge,” and on Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole:

“Is the ultimate nature of reality non-physical?” If kicking a stone won’t settle that question, it’s not clear why it should matter (pun partially intended) to most of us any more than it did to Dr. Johnson. But we might be more interested, today, in Keith Ward’s comments on atheists and why he’s not one anymore:

“Is belief in the existence of a God or gods the equivalent of believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden? Or can it be defended on the basis of reason or evidence?” Anthony Grayling says “the best and deepest thinking about ethics has come from non-religious traditions” that value reason and evidence over faith and fairies.

[atheism/Grayling @dawn… Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age… The Good Book: A Humanist Bible]

In EEA we’re between texts, with Van Jones just behind us and the late Ernest Callenbach‘s Ecotopia just ahead. We wish. In the interim, we eagerly anticipate a visit with our esteemed university president Dr. Sidney McPhee, from whom we hope to get the green light on greening our campus. Stay tuned.

“They do not sweat and whine about their condition”

June 9, 2012

One last word, maybe, on Ray Bradbury. He said in an old Fresh Air interview that the sources of his lyricism, a cut above the standard in scifi,  included Shakespeare and the Bible.

In Martian Chronicles he has a character blaming Darwin, Freud, and Huxley for robbing humanity of meaning. That’s egregiously wrong, on my view those three tapped into the most prolific founts of meaning available to conscious agents in a material world. All great men do indeed have their limitations, Bradbury’s no exception.

But, I wouldn’t dispute his character’s next statement:

The Martians discovered the secret of life among animals. The animal does not question life. It lives. Its very reason for living is life; it enjoys and relishes life… [They] realized that in order to survive they would have to forgo asking that one question any longer: Why live? Life was its own answer.

Hear that, Camus? Wondering again if Ray didn’t also read his Whitman.

“I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.”

“Humanists believe in life before death”

April 22, 2011

“What’s the difference between a Humanist and a New Atheist?”

That question came up in class the other day. I suggested the opening line of the Humanist Manifesto, as a beginning:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Here’s another good source: Greg Epstein’s Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do BelieveEpstein mentions an impressive roster of Humanists including Thomas Jefferson, John Lennon, Churchill, Sartre, Voltaire, Hume, Rushdie, Confucius, Vonnegut, Twain, Bil Gates, Warren Buffett, Darwin, & Einstein. Humanism is the fourth largest “lifestance” in the world today, nestling just behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism… and without really trying. Epstein writes:

We humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other “acts of God,” not to mention the thousand other fundamental injustices of life, and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then so be it: we must become the superintendents of our own lives. Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place…

Humanists believe in life before death.

Amen. Most so-called New Atheists believe all that too, they just don’t say it enough. They should spend at least as much time and energy articulating their affinities as their aversions, and should be as clear about their own good intentions.

Anthony Grayling has taken a stab at that with his new Good Book: A Humanist Bible, “a powerful secular alternative to the Bible.”

The Good Book consciously takes its design and presentation from the Bible, in its beauty of language and arrangement into short chapters and verses for ease of reading and quotability, offering to the non-religious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of secular humanist traditions that are older, far richer and more various than Christianity. Organized in 12 main sections—-Genesis, Histories, Widsom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good—-The Good Book opens with meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it, then devotes attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated. Incorporating the writing of Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon…

And so the next rendition of my Atheism class begins to resolve itself. Last time the theme was “Atheism and Spirituality.” Next, it’ll be “Atheism and Ethics.” Stay tuned.

And happy Earth Day!


January 21, 2011

“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us.” Bill Watterson

He also said:

“There is not enough time to do all the nothing we want to do.”


“Getting an inch of snow is like winning 10 cents in the lottery.” Some people here think they won the jackpot. A student actually asked if I’d dismiss class, if it started to snow. I shoulda said yes, so we could all (like Calvin & Hobbes) get more nothing done.

Here’s another great snowy scene, a lot less scary:

What Makes a Life Significant

January 17, 2011

In the past I’ve encouraged students to observe MLK Day by reading William James’s “What Makes a Life Significant” and reflecting on its declaration that

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.

This year, I would just add the President’s recent encouragement in Tucson to strive to meet a little girl’s expectations. “We should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.” [full text]

The opportunity to realize her own incipient ideals for our democracy was brutally stolen from Christina Green, but we’re still here. Our fidelity, courage, and endurance are still demanded. We’re still tasked to make our lives significant and solidly meaningful. Hers already is.


P.S. A year ago, I’m reminded, we heard stories from Grandpa (just weeks before his passing) about what it was like to be in Nashville during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The best written account of those days is David Halberstam’s The Children. The young people chronicled there showed real “courage, fidelity, and endurance.”


January 5, 2011

David Brooks is often resented and criticized by my peers for dipping into philosophical waters he’s not been trained for. But I’m always happy to see philosophy on the pages of the Times (or hear it again on the radio), especially when it barks up one of my favorite alleys.

The topic of Brooks’s latest sally into my field is nothing less than naturalized transcendence: the quest for meaning and purpose in life which does not invoke or rely on supernatural powers and universal explanations.

We should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.

Making? How about enjoying? One “cup of strong coffee at the proper moment” really can overturn your world. Make mine a grande-sized mug.

Brooks’s inspiration for this rare and welcome neglect of the political news-cycle, published on New Years’ Eve, is a new book by a pair of philosophers: All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Kelly of Harvard.

Michael Roth likes it too, but wonders if the authors haven’t gone overboard in extolling the transcendent possibilities inherent in the madness of crowds so often displayed in our sports arenas and stadia. Is triumph between the white lines really akin to capturing Ahab’s whale? Old Heidegger even comes into play here, but Roth– evidently not that kind of sports fan– questions the gravitas of bats and rackets and balls.

Can privileged, happy spectators really stand as an antidote for the general affliction of modernity? Is “whooshing” along with a crowd the philosophers’ cure for nihilism or just its expression?

Well, he’s right: it’s important to “whoosh” for the right things and for the right reasons.  I’ve been known to wax poetic and metaphysical about baseball, and will soon be doing it again: Sidd Finch and Sadaharu Oh are on deck.

But I wouldn’t contest the claim that our culture is insanely, obsessively, divertedly fixated on games. They’re only games, after all, and crowds can and too often do become unthinking violent mobs.

But… let’s not confuse the sullied product of professional athletics and consumerist gluttony with the purity of the experience to be had at (for instance) Younger Daughter’s junior varsity basketball game. The Tigers suffered their first defeat last night, but they’ll roar back. With a whoosh.