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The Happy Heretic-David Hume

October 19, 2017

Back to Happiness, after a lovely little Fall Break. Spent part of mine happily with family and bicycle in the woods around The University of the South, in Sewanee. The Domain, they call it, kind of a world unto itself. Profs and students wear gowns to class, and “Sewanee angels watch over and protect the members of the Sewanee community…” Well, if it makes them happy to think so I suppose a heretic should raise no serious objection, since the Anglican-modeled Episcopalians on the Mountain tend not to proselytize or persecute.  What would David Hume say? Or “primitive cultures” and/or Bill Wilson? (I’m unclear about today’s report topic. Are 12-steppers a primitive culture? Hmm…)

[Orig. published 10.15.15:]

It was kind of an unofficial Heretics Day in CoPhi, with Spinoza and reports on Galileo, and Luther. The theme continues this morning with more Luther, and St. Paul (another equestrian accidentalist like Montaigne, not usually described as a heretic… but what else should we call the inventor of such major tenets of the incipient upstart Christian faith as Jesus’ divinity, holy spirit, atonement etc.? ); and in Happiness we’re spending just a bit of time with the happy heretic David Hume,  “Le Bon David,” “the Great Infidel.” He said:

  • “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.”
  • “Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”
  • “He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper, but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to his circumstance.”
  • “Heaven and Hell suppose two distinct species of men, the Good and the Bad. But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue.” 
  • “To be a philosophical Sceptic is the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.” 
  • “If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.”
One of Hume’s heresies, increasingly mainstream with time and the ubiquity of Buddhist thinking, is the illusion of selfhood. “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…” This is a subtraction that many, like Alison Gopnik, have found additive. Lost baggage can lighten a journey and gladden the heart.

Until Hume, philosophers had searched for metaphysical foundations supporting our ordinary experience, an omnipotent God or a transcendent reality outside our minds. But Hume undermined all that. When you really look hard at everything we think we know, he argued, the foundations crumble. Descartes at least had said you always know that you yourself exist (“I think, therefore I am”), but Hume rejected even that premise…

But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game. 

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people… (continues)

Another Humean heresy, especially where I live, is his skepticism regarding miracles.

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should have really happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

It’s not a position most students are initially happy with, but in the long run the habit of “rejecting the greater miracle” removes motes from the eyes and restores clear vision. For some, that’s the greatest miracle of all.

Podcast
5:30/6:55, 49/79

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Middle Ages

October 18, 2017

Back from Fall Break…

[Orig. published March 2017:]

What a summery first day of Spring that was!

Back from the philosophy conference in Birmingham, in Vulcan‘s shadow, where I was pleased to meet John Kaag and thank him for his American Philosophy: A Love Story. He’s a peripatetic too, noting that “walking gives one many things,” especially time and attention. “Looking back,” he writes, “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.”

And most pointedly: “The point of American philosophy isn’t to be ‘right’… is not to have a specific rock-solid point, but rather to outline a problem, explore its context, get a sense of the whole experiential situation…” Always good to remember, at a conference. SAAP conferees tend to remember it better than some others.

Then, I contributed my small bit to the William James Society‘s panel discussion of immortality “re-envisioned“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 vulnerable 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. As Billy Collins says in today’s poem (“The Order of the Day”), you never really know.

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 intellectual 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 undertake his own fateful 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. “It is pointless to do with more what can be done with less.” Remember Goober’s beard?

Remember Buridan’s Ass? Apparently “no such animal appears in his writings.” Too bad, he’s been such a workhorse for logicians.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic friar, 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. Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson tell 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? Russell says, of “the supposed impossibility of a series having no first term: Every mathematician knows that there is no such impossibility; the series of negative integers ending with minus one is an instance to the contrary. But here again no Catholic is likely to abandon belief in God even if he becomes convinced that Saint Thomas’s arguments are bad; he will invent other arguments, or take refuge in revelation.” It’s not just Catholics. Remember confirmation bias?

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.” 

==
3.14.17. Happy birthday J.S. Bach, who said “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” That’s not what Dan Dennett says in From Bacteria to Bach and Back. “You shouldn’t trust your intuitions. Conceivability or inconceivability is a life’s work—it’s not something where you just screw up your head for a second!”

The Alabama Freedom March began on this date in 1965. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and 3,200 demonstrators set off on a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the disenfranchisement of black voters… WA
5:30/6:50, 59/73/46, 6:57 

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Spinoza’s joy

October 12, 2017

Today in Happiness we finish Frederic Lenoir’s Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide. It’s an answer to the SoL’s charge that western academic philosophy no longer offers the kind of therapeutic balm and succor, the therapy, that inspired the Hellenistic Age. We have resources too, if you’re willing to cherry-pick your western medicine: a little Stoicism here, a little Epicureanism there, a little Spinoza, a little Plato (not Prozac)…

But first, a word of appreciation for our reporters last time. That mindful moment out on the Peck Hall stoa, framed by a gentle rain, was calming. We should do that again.

Spinoza was mindful in his way. His possessions were few: books, desk, optical workshop, the four-poster bed of both his conception and his demise. Do people who retain tangible continuity with the familiar furniture of their lives, over a lifetime, find peace of mind easier to have and hold?

He wanted to free us from the “cruel illusion” of free will, in deference to the “spinozism of freedom” (as my old teacher called it) that he found in surrender to causal necessity. To be free, in these terms, is to shelve the will and find liberation in rational understanding. It’s to transcend the narrow and selfish ego, to discard the sense of personal marginality and alienation, to embrace the widest possible identity in the whole.

Does that identity squeeze out particularity and individualism? Not in Lenoir’s interpretation. “We must all learn to know ourselves in order to discover what makes us happy or unhappy…” 

Well, good. Great. But what if we discover that what makes us happy is the sense of ourselves as causal agents whose wills do sometimes find expression in purposive activity that makes a difference, that alters events and creates alternative futures? What if we desire that identity? Is it a bad desire?

“The role of reason then consists not in judging and reprimanding a bad desire (as morality does), but in arousing new desires, more securely established, that will bring us greater joy.” Lenoir offers the example of his niece, whom he says reason instructed to desire a more serious approach to school. Reason, not will, “enabled her to do all that was necessary…” (165) Are we sure about that? I’m not.

To be happy we must “focus on energizing the forces of life: to nourish joy, love, compassion, kindness, tolerance, benevolent thoughts, self-esteem…” Sounds like a big job for reason alone.

Is “joy” a passing emotion or a “permanent feeling”? It can be both, surely. But our “essential truth” is that “joy of living” that engenders gratitude, harmony, peace, and freedom. Spinoza’s way is one path, but it’s not the only one. Lenoir’s last words echo some of what we heard on Tuesday about finding happiness within ourselves, urging indispensable “inner labor”. Agreed, but again with the proviso that inner work must eventually connect with outer exertion, must translate into engagement and not, finally, detachment.

Some questions: Can we freely choose to renounce free will? Or freely choose to affirm it? Or seek new desires? (Remember Schopenhauer’s “We can do what we want, but not want what we want.”)
Why shouldn’t we expect a pantheistic universe to yield universal rules of behavior? Can a rationalist- pantheist endorse delusional sources of happiness? 178 Was Einstein being disingenous when he affirmed “Spinoza’s God”? If  “there isn’t an inch of earth where God is not,” does God not have a lot to answer for?

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Sk(c)eptics

October 11, 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?
==
3.2.17. 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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Stoics, Skeptics, & Taoists

October 10, 2017

We’re looking for points of contact between eastern and western notions of happiness today in Happiness. Epictetus the Stoic said its our judgments about things (including people) that disturb us, not things (or people). Shantideva the Buddhist sage said it’s better to “kill the spirit of hatred” rather than go after the haters one by one. The spirit, like the judgment, resides within oneself.

That may be strategically sound, but those who’ve actually witnessed White Supremacist rallies (for instance) testify that the spirit was all too manifest and out in the open. My judgment about such people is about such people, not just about itself. Is the best way to combat them really through an inward turn? Maybe, if the inner transformation then radiates in the form of action towards social justice. Detach from hatred, then attach to reform. Repeat as needed.
Does it help to replace anthropomorphic gods with a pantheistic sense of divine unity? You’d have to accept the bundle, wouldn’t you, bad apples and all? The world is one but it’s also many, including many joys and sorrows. I can affirm the former without reservation, but less of the latter would have to be better.
Epictetus’s dogcart analogy suggests “we need to unite our wills with the necessity of destiny.” Are we the dog? Or the cart-driver? I’ll accept the journey and even enjoy it if I know my intended destination.
If we cannot ever “bend the world to our desires” we may as well stop seeking satisfaction. What if we can occasionally bend it a bit, though? That might be enough reward for our effort to elicit more, for many.

Samsara, the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth that Buddhists say sustains our “erroneous perception of reality,” is (they say) rooted in desire. But the desire to ameliorate suffering does not distort reality, it improves it. The problem isn’t desire per se, it’s too many of the wrong desires and not enough of the good ones. No?

Cosmopolitanism, for my money, is the Stoics’ greatest invention. We’re all citizens of the world, indeed the cosmos, and can be trained to desire the good of all sentient beings. Narcissistic individualism is just a stage, if we’re smart enough to enter training.

Chuang Tzu and Montaigne both liked to laugh. “These two skeptics mock the dogmatic, enjoy relating irreverent anecdotes, deride the complacent and are able to laugh at themselves…” Que scay-je? What, me worry? But don’t get carried away, skeptic, “seek a balance between dogmatism and skepticism… ‘reach an opinion and [don’t] hesitate to proffer it’…” Montaigne’s wisdom, says Lenoir, “comes down to a sort of great, sacred ‘yes’ to life.” His yes seems more genuinely affirming than Nietzsche’s, seems to me. We’ll talk about that later.


Taoist paradoxes can be frustratingly cryptic: forget yourself to find yourself, try not to try etc. Apparently that frustration is supposed to be instigating and revealing, not just annoying. 
But I am a bit annoyed by the suggestion that we should be “content with the radiance [of the sun] without trying to scrutinize its source.” We need to understand the source, and thereby intensify our contentment and magnify our competence to replicate the radiance. You don’t have to be a Platonist about suns and Forms of the Good to think so.

Some questions: Do you agree that things are inherently neutral, with respect to their bearing on your happiness, and that it’s only your opinion of them that matters? In general, what’s your attitude towards desire and attachment? Are they obstacles to happiness or prerequisites for it?
How important are “willpower” and self-control to your happiness? What can you do to strengthen them? What does “Living the present” mean to you? Is there a problem with it, as either a goal or a possible attainment? Does anticipating bad possibilities (as Cicero did with his daily praemeditatio) make you happier in the long run, or less so? What did John Lennon mean by “instant karma”? (It was his birthday yesterday, he’d have been 77. Hard to imagine.)

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Dreams of Epicureans & Stoics

October 9, 2017

It’s Gottlieb’s Epicureans & Stoics today in CoPhi, a bit more refined and garrulous than Warburton’s. What would they say about last year’s Oscar kerfuffle? The Epicureans would probably just say not to waste money on Hollywood, the Stoics that there’s no point in grumbling about either Academy-Plato’s or the motion picture industry’s. Both would advise therapy for anyone who takes it all too seriously. “The key to wisdom is knowing what not to care about.”

It’s also another day for reports… Last time we had a good one on Kurt Vonnegut’s Man Without a Country.

“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”

[This paragraph does not apply to us directly, today, but it might still be of future use…] And it’s exam day too. We should care about that, but not too much-more than an “iota” but less than to lose any sleep over. James’s advice on how to prepare for an exam is pretty sound, though of course it’s predicated on the presumption that students have in fact been studying all along.

If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently. William James, “Gospel of Relaxation

Epicureanism was the ancestral precursor of utilitarianism and its “greatest happiness for the greatest number” approach to life. The big difference, though, is that you can’t really maximize happiness in the style of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill while also shunning “any direct involvement in public life.” Can you?

Epicurus was apparently the first to state the intractable problem of free will and determinism. If the random knocking-about of atoms gives rise to every event, where does that leave us? On the sidelines, observing but not directing our fate? “Here I stand, I can do no other”-? That won’t do. Will it? 

A.J. Ayer said freedom’s not worth much if it’s decoupled from responsibility, and if there’s no knowing what someone’s ever going to do “we do not look upon him as a moral agent. We look upon him rather as a lunatic.” That reminds me of an incident from my vault of undergrad memories, when one of my determined peers set out to demonstrate his and our freedom by doing something unpredictable with a beer mug. He really just demonstrated the truth of Ayer’s observation.
I’m also reminded of the time Ayer faced off with the heavyweight champion of the world. Freedom and responsibility are nothing, if not a threat to one’s bodily health.
The Stoics were (painted) porch philosophers, and in the co-opted person of Epictetus were more at ease with an unswerving determinism than I. “Wish for everything to happen as it does happen, and your life will be serene.” Really? Is that a responsible form of serenity or resignation to slavish servitude?

The Stoics thought the Epicureans were wrong about plenty, but agreed with them that we live in a material world. Everything is physical, in its own way. Okay, but we’re natural spirits in the material world. We’re not just bouncing atoms, even if the occasional swerve leaves us guessing about the next configuration of people and things. Our breath is fiery and animated, and we have consequential choices and decisions to make.

But there’s a yawning inconsistency at the heart of the Stoic worldview, Gottlieb says. “If  they are right about Fate, then nothing at all is under our control.” Not even our attitudes and inner reactions to external events. Back to the drawing board. Or back to the therapist’s couch.*

Can philosophers can be good therapists, or as good (in their different way) as psychologists? Can Plato beat prozac? People like Lou Marinoff (the “Socratic shrink“) say so. Others say: dream on.

*Or, back on your feet: you can resolve with young James that your first act of free will shall be to believe in and act upon a committed belief in free will. Stand! You’re free, at least in your mind, if you want to be.
==
2.28.17. Happy birthday to Irish-American novelist and lifelong learner Colum McCann, who at age 21 biked 12,000 miles through 40 states on his Schwinn, “collecting stories all along the way… He said that it feels like going to college every time he writes a book: ‘I take a brand-new three-year crash course in that which I want to know.’ And, ‘real bravery comes with those who… look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small.'”

5:25/6:20, 56/70, 5:39

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Individual & collective happiness etc.

October 5, 2017
What fun in Happiness last time, listening to Kyle’s Happy Playlist and pondering our own. How sobering, though, to see Robin Williams cavorting on the Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” video in full knowledge of his tragic self-negating destiny. But perhaps it’s not accurate to say he took his own life, rather that life’s vicissitudes and invasive mental disease took it from him. Before then he made a lot of people happy and dispatched a lot of gratuitous worry. So sad he couldn’t do the same, ultimately, for himself.
What would we add to the list? Mine had to include The Beatles’ In My Life, leading to Hey Jude, to When I’m 64… And thinking of Tom Petty, a Resilience soundtrack would be a great sequel. That’s the quality of character these times seem most to require and will most reward. 

Today in Happiness we begin with a surprising statement from Spinoza: “When each man most seeks his own advantage for himself, then men are most useful to one another.” That’s discordant with the notes we sounded last time against “visceral egoists” and for altruists. But pantheists don’t really believe in individuals and their egos, certainly not in an Ayn Randian sense. He did believe that happiness comes from identification with the most inclusive whole we can conceive. So, I wonder what Lenoir intends with that decontextualized epigraph.

Would we rather be happy than “sublime or saved”? Not sure we have to face that choice. “Earthly happiness” checks both of those boxes, for me (and Voltaire). Note to class: register for PHIL 3310, “Atheism & Philosophy” next semester if you want to pursue that question. It’s distinctly related to the modern bifurcation Lenoir deplores, the separation of individual well-being from the common good.

Michel Houellebecq writes all about “narcissistic individualism: his characters are apathetic, egoistic, frustrated, cynical…joyless hedonis[ts]” who wouldn’t know the meaning of individual good if it bit them. He seems to think they are us.

But who are we really? Lenoir’s friend Bruckner thinks “we are probably the first societies in history to make people unhappy about not being happy… the obsession with happiness often thwarts happiness.” How depressing. Irony is supposed to make you smile, at least, isn’t it?

And oh by the way, depression is a symptom of our unhappy obsession and a reflection of our question for self-realization without adequate social support. Making matters worse, nature has wired us to look for trouble. “We become more aware of negative events… dissatisfaction makes us strive constantly for more and better things.” Can we learn to take satisfaction in our very dissatisfaction, to see it as emblematic (again) of our capacity for resilience? Don’t back down, get back up, be happy. Is that a formula we can work with?

Another question today points back to J.S. Mill’s “durable joy” and delight in feeling, after much too much thinking. “Would you become blase, were all your desires satisfied?” Mill perplexed himself with the realization that fulfilling all his intellectual and social/political goals would leave him no happier than before. Then he broadened his portfolio of desires to include Wordsworth. We can learn from that too, not necessarily from Wordsworth (though also not necessarily not). Our poetry may be music, and “the music can commence again…” Silly music (and poetry) is sometimes the best balm. Take it away Eric

Squeeze this one into the Happy/Resilient playlist too. “It’s alright,” as Tom sings, “I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive… at the end of the line.”

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Epicureans & Stoics

October 4, 2017

It’s Epicurus and the Stoics today in CoPhi, and more reports.

Last semester when we took up this subject we heard a report on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “Stuff your eyes with wonder,” and don’t “hide your ignorance… you’ll never learn.” Well, the un-bookish oafs currently running the show in Washington haven’t concealed their ignorance, but will they ever learn? Will we ever learn to stop electing un-bookish oafs?

Epicurus and his friends retired from public life, having lost all patience with the unhappy society of their peers whose fear of death they diagnosed as a waste of time and a violation of logic. Better to live simply and bravely with your pals, they thought, pursuing (but not wallowing in) pleasure and avoiding the gratuitous mental pain of the material rat race. Like Aristotle they wanted to live well and flourish, with a bit more emphasis on fun and happiness. Also like Aristotle, they deeply valued friendship. Their commune inspired Marx’s dissertation.

Contrary to scurrilous popular rumor they weren’t lascivious hedonists or self-indulgent esthetes, preferring a plentiful pot of cheap stew to share over good conversation. Bread, cheese, and olives were staples – their version of pizza. The most valuable commodity of all, they thought, was the precious gift of time. As their admirer Henry Thoreau would eventually say, they considered  that”the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” In the long run we’re all safely dead, he and they figured, so we’d better make the best of the time we have.

“Epicurean” is another of those adjectives that’s drifted far from its progenitor’s intent. Check out the latest issue of Epicure magazine, promoting the “gourmet lifestyle” and designed for globetrotting “bon vivants” and “well-travelled foodies.” Epicurus and friends would rather have just hung out in the Garden and chatted over their modest but filling fare. “If you start drinking expensive wine, then you’ll very soon end up wanting to drink even more expensive wine, and get caught in the trap of longing for things that you can’t have” – not without abandoning your friends and slaving your time away to pay for your refined and expensive taste in vino. I’ll stick with the Bay Bridge Sauvignon they sell at Kroger for $2.99, and the sale-priced IPA.

Be calm and carry on, as we say. “Calm is an internal quality that is the result of analysis: it comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to write, and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener: a sympathetic, kind, clever person who in Epicurus’s time would have been a philosopher, and whom we would now call a therapist.”

True to his doctrine, Epicurus died painfully but without fear or complaint. He “suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. It was
he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be happy on the rack.”

And “in a final letter to Hermarchus, Epicurus writes, ‘On the happiest, and the last, day of my life. I am suffering from diseases of the bladder and intestines, which are of the utmost possible severity.’ But he goes on, amazingly, ‘Yet all my sufferings are counterbalanced by the contentment of soul which I derive from remembering our reasonings and discoveries.'” Critchley

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an epicurean, in his day. “Death is not an event in life.” Well, that sentiment’s a bit self-centered but it’s literally true, with respect to one’s own demise. “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.” But what of the pain of losing friends and loved ones? We must turn to the Stoics to deal with the loss of precious others, and may then find them coming up somewhat short of heart and soul.

Ataraxia, calm, tranquility, serenity, equanimity… that’s the big stoic aim, based on the idea that we can’t control external events but can control our inner attitudes and responses. Can we? Shouldn’t we try, in any case? We should control our emotions, say stoics like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, lest they overwhelm us with the madness of violent feeling.

Marcus Aurelius asks, ‘Why do you hunger for length of days?’ The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. “Pass on your way then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.” 

Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things [pragmata], but by the opinions [dogmata] which they have of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But
the terror consists in our opinion of death, that it is terrible.”
Cicero thought we shouldn’t worry about dying, but not for Epicurus’s reasons. Live now, Seneca said, life’s long enough for those who make the right choices about how they spend the hours of their days. Annie Dillard and Maria Popova agree, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” But did Seneca make the right choice complying with crazy Nero, in his final hour? Not his finest, I’d say.

The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.” They’d have been pleased to ponder all those game-changing “new” exoplanets, and (unlike some religions, says David Weintraub) to welcome ET. Winston Churchill too: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Some questions: Are you afraid of death, of dying, or of any other aspect of human mortality? Why or why not? What’s the best way to counter such fear? Are you epicurean in any sense of the word? Have you experienced the death of someone close to you? How did you handle it? Do you believe in the possibility of a punitive and painful afterlife? Do you care about the lives of those who will survive you? Which do you consider more important? Why? Do you consider Epicurus’s disbelief in immortal souls a solution to the problem of dying, or an evasion of it? Do you find the thought of ultimate mortality consoling or mortifying?

And one more: Can Epicureans and Stoics help us break our addiction to the spectacle of Drumpf “…as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all.” Can we afford the luxury of ignoring him? Can we sustain our sanity if we don’t? What do you say, Emperor?

  • “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 
  • “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” 
  • “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” 
  • “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” 
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
The slave said something very similar. “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” 
Don’t you wish the emperor and the slave had been on the ballot in November?
==
2.23.17. Happy 384th birthday to master diarist Sam Pepys, who expressed an epicurean attitude when he observed “how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” He was more the hedonist, though. “The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.” Gather ye rosebuds

5:30/6:26, 55/76, 5:34

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Contagious happiness

October 3, 2017
“Are you happy?” is too unequivocal, too binary a question for Frederic Lenoir. Our happiness is a sliding continuum, “and our impression of happiness fluctuates with time.”  A lot of us slide back, in the wake of an atrocity like Las Vegas. Most of us will slide forward again. Insights like J.S. Mill’s, on the durable sources of joy amidst life’s travails, grease the skids. He was raised by his overbearing Pop to think, but (with an assist from the poet Wordsworth) taught himself to find joy in feeling.

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed… I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this…

Adam Etinson concludes, in The Stone, that “we all have the ability to find some durable joy in quietude, normalcy and contemplation… [to] escape Schopenhauer’s pendulum: to simply enjoy where we are, at times; to find some peace in the cessation of motion.”

It’s become a commonplace to say that most people revert, after confronting serious illness, career disappointment, traumatic violence, or (alternately) a positive event, to their happiness “fixed point.” We may not want to hear that, but in times like these it’s probably good news. Lenoir says he’s found it possible to “break through to new levels,” and the bare possibility may be enough to keep most of us in active pursuit. Even if we generally revert to form, it’s nice to ponder the perpetual possibility of a breakthrough.

The “age effect” will dispirit most students, if they think they have to wait for their sixth decade to begin experiencing a “notable rise”… followed by a new phase of decline after seventy. Guess I should be having the time of my life right now, in the “mellowness of maturity.” I’d like to counter that you’re only as old as you feel, but from an aches-and-pains perspective that’s not always so reassuring. I prefer to collect inspiring examples of octogenerians, nonagenerians, and centenarians who’ve flourished in the autumn and early winter of life, people like Stewart Udall, Will Durant, Jimmy Carter… but not Hef.
Friendship (philia), Aristotle was surely right to say, is for most a crucial condition of happiness. “Visceral egoists” are not great friends, if you need a reason to reject that attitude. Altruists, on the other hand, are terrific. Not sure I agree with Lenoir and Ricard that “human nature is fundamentally good,” but I’ve known many natures who were. Unfortunately, the human nature scale is also a continuum that runs the gamut and includes the likes of the Las Vegas shooter.

“Every happy friend increases our probability of being happy by 9 percent” but misery also loves company. I still wonder about the impact of happy pessimists, if we’ve agreed that there are such critters. 

The “shared rapture” of rooting for a winning team can indeed be upliftng, but unlike the biblical rapture it doesn’t last. Wait ’til next year. Next week. Tomorrow.

Are we really “almost all ‘more or less happy'” most of the time? We’re up and down the scale, for sure, and that would seem to mitigate the suggestion that we might realistically aim to be”happy every moment” – unless we’ve followed Aristotle’s program and decoupled eudaimonia from every moment. The visceral egoists deserve to fail every program, if life were fair.

Finally: if shaudenfreude can be explained in evolutionary terms, cooperation and mutual support can too. We can learn to take pleasure in others’ happiness. Nurture, as we were saying yesterday, can improve our nature.

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Aristotle redux

October 2, 2017
More Aristotle today in CoPhi, and our first midterm group reports…not sure what The Philosopher and his peripatetics would have said about them, but the “research institute” he called the Lyceum was into everything from anatomy to zoology, so they’d have said something.

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?
==
2.21.17. Speaking of *lions… “Most of the ideas that went into The Communist Manifesto [published on this date in 1848] were brainstormed over the course of a week and a half in a room above an English pub — a pub called the Red Lion, located in the Soho district of London.” And it’s the birthday of the brilliant but troubled David Foster Wallace, who diagnosed part of our problem when he said “postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.” WA (“This Is Water“)

5:30/6:28, 56/68, 5:32

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