Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Don’t forget to duck, atheists

March 27, 2015

What do atheists and ducks have in common, aside from the fact that both are gathering this weekend at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis?

Image result for peabody hotel ducks cartoon

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1EaNTGL

Locke, Reid, & Berkeley

March 26, 2015
Today in CoPhi it’s John Locke (not the “Lost” one) and Thomas Reid on personal identity (and John Dunn on Locke’s concept of toleration), George Berkeley, and John Campbell on Berkeley’s Puzzle.

John Locke has become a more difficult figure to research, ever since the Lost  television series pushed his namesake to the forefront of popular consciousness and search results. The fictional John Locke can walk, not back in civilization but on his freaky island. (But I can’t listen to this song.)

The real John Locke, “apostle of the Revolution of 1688″ (Russell)  apparently had trouble walking  too.

He was naturally very active, and employed himself as much as his health would permit. Sometimes he diverted himself with working in the garden, which he well understood. He loved walking, but not being able to walk much, through the disorder of his lungs, he used to ride out after dinner…

[I have to keep reminding myself that these “riding” philosophers were on horseback, not bikes. Philosophy Rides, the sequel, will not be a historical survey.]

His bad health was a disturbance to none but himself… his usual drink was nothing but water…

Good for him, I guess. He’s not the philosopher I’d most like to spend time in a pub with, though I admire his most pragmatic statement that “the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thought.”

His near-dying words were that we should regard this world and life as nothing but a vanity and “a state of preparation for a better.” Repugnant words, to a humanist. And yet, other words of his (“all mankind being equal and independent, none ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty”) inspired some of our greatest social and political experiments.

And some of our strangest television. Don’t tell me what I can’t do.


The Locke who inspired the eighteenth century was the philosopher who wired Aristotle’s most important insight, that all knowledge comes through experience, into the modern western mind. (Cave & Light)

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. 

But Walter (“That’s the way it is”) Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right when he wrote:
“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

Cesar Kuriyama told TED he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”


Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more. 

Locke is more familiar to Americans as the underwriter of our pursuit of life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, we know, edited Locke on that last point.) He defended separation of church and state (as did Thomas Jefferson), and toleration. [AU] A very enlightened guy, for his time and place, but still not clear-sighted about freedom from worship for those who choose it. [Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God reviewed… Locke’s radical idea (Cave&Light)]

And, we can blame him in large part for Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) startling esse est percipi thesis, since Berkeley drove through the hole Locke’s representational realism had opened. Also today, John Campbell on Berkeley’s Puzzle.

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson[Johnson’s Boswell]


The conventional judgment of philosophers, in relating this funny little story, is that Johnson missed Berkeley’s point. Mine is that Berkeley missed the point of Johnson’s demonstration: nobody really lives exclusively in his own (figurative or literal, res cogitans or res extensa) head. Not even distracted bishops or philosophers.

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.

There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.


Well, the idea of him is now hung again anyway. If a portrait hangs in a gallery but nobody looks at it, does it make an impression? Its subject surely did, we always talk about him between Locke and Hume. Why is that? He was an empiricist only nominally, not temperamentally and (despite the extremity of his view) definitely not radicallyRadical Empiricists [wiki]who think like William James perceive the relations in experience that connect us and our sometimes-whacky ideas to the real “external” world.

Campbell (who, btw, speaks in the most charming Scots brogue) nonetheless describes Berkeley’s puzzle and its solution as radical, tearing at the roots of everyday common sense. “If all I’ve got to go on is this wall of sensation, how can I even frame the idea of something beyond that?” His solution is no solution: “You can’t, it’s just an illusion… All we have are our ideas.” That’s a really bad idea, Bishop B.

Campbell himself makes more sense. There are “different levels in the description of reality,” and everything we experience, from colors and smells and tastes (the so-called secondary qualities of experience) to quantum phenomena to observer-independent quantitative/”objective” features of the world, is “out there,” i.e., real… but appropriately described in different terms. James again clarifies:

Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows.

That last bit is purely rhetorical, James didn’t think heaven has a dog in this hunt. It’s up to us to decide when to speak the language of common sense and when to defer to some corrective scientific or critical or other specialized vocabulary. Levels. And brains, “it’s very important that we have brains. But their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk.”

Russell again: 

There is therefore a justification for common sense in philosophy, but only as showing that our theoretical principles cannot be quite correct so long as their consequences are condemned by an appeal to common sense which we feel to be irresistible.


This In Our Time is all about Berkeley.

Calvin, btw, seems to have taken the Bishop seriously.

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1FKqkVs

The atheists are coming

March 25, 2015

Sitting in the Nashville airport lounge last evening, awaiting the return from Florida  of my Spring Breaking family, the inescapable television presence of CNN suddenly grabbed my attention with something genuinely newsworthy: American Atheists uncloseted and partying in Tennessee, with a paid tv spot proclaiming next week’s national convention right here in our backyard. It was surreal. Or maybe, finally, simply honest and real.

http://ift.tt/1FB9gkS
Road trip?

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1EFFwh5

Spinoza & art

March 24, 2015
Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of the passions).

Spinoza (“Spinozer,” my old teacher from Brooklyn called him) believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:
Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance. 

You could say the very same of Spinoza.

In HAP 101 last year we tried to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we’re not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.

In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.

I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. 

 Nothing in nature is by chance… Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.

The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature… I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids. 


They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces” etc.) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we note  Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” Pascal’s fright contrasts sharply with Spinoza’s cosmic bliss. “What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.”


[Descartes to Deism… Tlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)… Spinoza @dawnPantheism SEP… FAQs… He’s back (Goldstein)… The Curse]

Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,… but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity. 

“Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you’re passionate,” subject to external influence, “you’re in bondage and unfree.” How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get “a better understanding of yourself and the world,” and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word? Pantheism

In Spinoza’s vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken… Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reasonPassion for Wisdom

And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his “intellectual love of God,” which he said was “the highest felicity.” God only knew why.

He’s still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.

  1. “[True & blessedness does not consist in enjoying wellbeing not shared by others or in being more fortunate than others].” (TTP)
  2. “It is the of reason to conceive things under a form of eternity.” (E5p29pr)

But, there are difficulties involved in trying to internalize a “Spinozism of freedom”…

Spinoza is led to a complete and undiluted pantheism. Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. This leads to difficulties… Bertrand Russell 

= = = = = = = = = = 


Also today: art. We’ll try to discern the artfulness of Duchamp’s Fountain, Dewey’s ballplayer, maybe even Mapplethorpe’s transgressive iconoclastic work. We’ll introduce Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, the Institutional Theory, and more.

And then we’ll be done with Philosophy: The Basics.

Arthur Danto, premier aesthetician of his generation (and former MTSU Lyceum speaker), had interesting thoughts on what makes Andy Warhol’s Brillo cartons and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (click, then scroll to the bottom to see his “Fountain”) works of art. In a word: interpretation. Or in another word: philosophy. “Things which look the same are really different” is Danto’s “whole philosophy of art in a nutshell.” Thus spake  the “weightiest critic in the Manhattan art world”  of his generation. [The end of art]

I don’t claim to know what art is, or if Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain” should count. But like most of us, I know what I like: I like John Dewey’s approach in Art as Experience.

Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd.”


The crowd at the fountain had best be careful not to be infected by something less delightful.

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1Ip8DJj

Pascal & the mind

March 19, 2015

Somewhere in Walden Thoreau says something about needing a little water in his world, to provide a reflective glimpse of eternity. He also has things to say to today’s headliner Pascal, about not being cowed by the scale of the cosmos. Pascal famously confessed: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” (No wonder he was frightened, say J & M.) Henry said, in reply to neighbors who wondered if he wasn’t lonely out there by the lake in the woods:Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?” Unlike his French predecessor, our transcendentalist was at home in the universe.

Trivial pop-culture factoid: last night on “Madam Secretary,” the husband (a teacher)mentioned Pascal.

Less trivially, Voltaire (we’ll soon see him skewering Leibniz) intervened in the Pascal-Montaigne conflict. He called Pascal a “sublime misanthropist” whose vision of humanity as imprisoned and terrorized by the immensity and uncertainty of the cosmos was “fanatic.”

Bertrand Russell mostly felt sorry for him, approvingly citing Nietzsche’s critique of Pascal’s “self-contempt and self-immolation.” He meant Pascal’s intellectual suicide, driven by fear.

Fortunately there’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], which we’ve already encountered in CoPhi.

Besides his mathematics and “Pascaline,” his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts (“Pensees-you can listen for free, here) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois. Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”

And

“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

And

“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*


And

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]


And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”


And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”


Reminds me of what Montaigne said about needing to kickstart his mind with his legs.


But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.


And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind. 

Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy’s long quest to represent “external reality” accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our “comic” efforts “to guarantee this and clarify that.” 

Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.

My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that’s what he’d call a duct tape question.

Rorty, with his metaphor of mind as (cloudy) mirror, is a good segue to the discussion of philosophy of mind, also on tap today.

Dualism gets us ghosts and spirits and other non-physical entities. Scary! But not for most students, I’ve found, so deeply have most of them drunk from the holy communion trough. It’s not a question of evidence but of familiarity and fear, in many cases – fear of the alternative. A student expressed that just the other day, asking with incredulity and contempt how anyone could possibly ponder facing the end of mortal existence without an immortal safety net firmly in place (in mind).

Why do they think the evolution of mind so closely parallels that of the brain? They don’t think about it, mostly.

Nor  do most think much about the possibility of mind and body being on parallel but never-converging tracks, pre-arranged to keep a synchronous schedule and never throw up a discordant discrepant “occasion.” And forget too about epiphenomenalism (which Sam Harris seems to be trying hard to revive).

If neuroscientists ever succeed in mapping the brain (TED) and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? [John Searle‘s view…] Is there a gap between the explanation and the experience of pain, pleasure, happiness, etc.? I say no and yes, respectively. But let’s try and draw that map, it may take us to interesting places none of us have thought about.

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1CwlVTV

Descartes

March 18, 2015

Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a “drunken fart,” simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. He asked his version of the Howard Baker question. (The majority of students in my Tennessee classrooms could not identify the statesman-Senator when asked, the other day. Sigh.)

His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?


Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong. (NOTE TO CLASS: I flip-flopped Descartes and his predecessor Montaigne, the anti-Descartes, on our syllabus: Descartes before the horse M. fell off of.)

Descartes’ different aspects – mathematician, scientist, Catholic etc. – might suggest his split allegiance between Teams Aristotle and Plato. Both would probably like to claim him. I think he belongs with the armchair Platonists.

Reducing the operations of the universe to a series of lines,circles, numbers, and equations suited his reclusive personality. His most famous saying, “I think, therefore Iam” (cogito, ergo sum), could be stated less succinctly but more accurately as ‘Because we are the only beings who do math, we rule.’

For Descartes, the essence of mind is to think, and the essence of matter is to exist-and the two never meet… we are the ghosts in the machine: souls in a world machine that operates inexorably and impersonally according to the laws of geometry and mechanics, while we operate the levers and spin the dials.” The Cave and the Light


http://ift.tt/1COCGHV

I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me.

Still, says A.C. Grayling, “we may disagree with Descartes that the right place to start is with the private data of consciousness” rather than the shared world of language and common experience; but even if he was wrong he was “powerfully, interestingly, and importantly wrong.” Russell concurs.

http://ift.tt/1GW4dby


The thing is, the quest for certainty in philosophy tends to go hand-in-glove with the assertion of rational necessity. That, in turn, courts determinism and fatalism. Do we really want to rubber-stamp everything that happens as fated, not free? Hobbes (the contractarian and the cat) did. Calvin learned not to.


Is there anything we know or believe that we could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? Certainly not, speaking at least for myself. But I’m next to certain that I’m more-or-less awake, at this hour, as the coffee drains.

I’m also pretty darn sure that I am (and do not “have”) a body/brain. When I think of who, what, and where I am, though, the answer is interestingly complicated by all my relations (I don’t just mean my familial relations): I am inclusive of a past and a future (though it keeps shrinking), and of wherever my influence (for better or worse) manages to stretch. I am vitally related by experience (actual, virtual, vicarious, possible, personal, interpersonal) to points far and wide. And, to actual physical objects in the extended world – not merely to possibilities of familiar object-like patterns of perception, as the phenomenalist has it. I’m not trapped in my skin, and we are definitely not alone in a solipsistic universe. Like Dr. Johnson, contra Berkeley, I find the pain in my toes (or hips) decidedly more substantial than an immaterial idea.

Or ghost.


I don’t believe in ghosts, except metaphorically. (I am haunted by opportunities missed, possibilities unnnoticed, diems uncarped.) But most of my metaphorical spooks are Casperishly friendly (albeit incoherent, dualistically speaking). This is true of most people who read and think a lot, isn’t it? We’re in constant, happy communion with the dead, the remote, and the prospective members of our continuous human community. Books transport us to their realms, and to the great undiscovered country of our future.

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1CuNI8Q

Adventure time!

March 6, 2015

Our father-daughter Spring Break/Spring Training adventure can’t happen fast enough.

We greet the dawn snow-and-ice-bound this morning, she in sub-zero Illinois, me surrounded by a record (for this date in Nashville) snowfall. But in our minds we’re already there, a stone’s throw from the best Grapefruit League venue ever (Al Lang Stadium) and short drives from next week’s games in Clearwater (Tigers-Phil), Tampa (Red Sox-Yanks), Bradenton (Sox-Bucs), and Dunedin (O’s-Jays). So, my topic for next month’s 20th annual Baseball in Literature and Culture conference at my school is inevitable: Spring Training and the Perennial Renewal of Life.

Speaking of Blue Jays, I hope we see one in particular before our Friday return flight. He’s the most interesting pitching prospect since Sidd Finch. If it were April 1 I’d be sure the late George Plimpton wrote this:
Daniel Norris (“The Van Man”) has a consistent 92-mile-an-hour fastball, a $2 million signing bonus, a deal with Nike and a growing fan club, yet he has decided the best way to prepare for the grind of a 162-game season is to live here, in the back of a 1978 Westfalia camper he purchased for $10,000. The van is his escape from the pressures of the major leagues, his way of dropping off the grid before a season in which his every movement will be measured, catalogued and analyzed.
 
If a baseball life requires notoriety, the van offers seclusion.
If pitching demands repetition and exactitude, the van promises freedom.
“It’s like a yin-and-yang thing for me,” he says. “I’m not going to change who I am just because people think it’s weird. The only way I’m going to have a great season is by starting out happy and balanced and continuing to be me. It might be unconventional, but to feel good about life I need to have some adventure.”

(continues)

We need to have some adventure too, Older Daughter and I. We need to get out of this deep freeze and into the sunshine. Vamanos!

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1NpISMS

Montaigne

March 5, 2015
Almost time for Spring Break! But first, Montaigne (& Bakewell on How to Live acc’ing to M). One good way to live, he thought, was by writing and reflecting on our many uncertainties. Embracing and celebrating them, in fact. That makes him an anti-Descartes, a happy and humane modern skeptic.

One thing we know for sure is the historical timelineMontaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much “fun” to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic (again though, not so far over the cliff as Pyrrho) and “quite happy to live with that.” His slogan was Que sçais-je?

Montaigne retired in his mid-30s to think and write, and ponder what must have felt to him (ever since his unplanned equine-dismounting event) like ever-looming mortality. He inscribed the beams of his study with many of his favorite quotes, including “nothing human is foreign to me” and “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”


Some of Montaigne’s life-lessons and rules for how to live, as decoded by Sarah Bakewell: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.

Montaigne leaps from the page as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker.

When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

Sarah Bakewell quotes Montaigne, disabusing us of the false image of him “brooding” in his tower. He was a peripatetic, too: “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” So, like Emerson he might have said “my books are in my library but my study is outdoors.”



There’s just something irresistibly alluring about the candid and disarming familiarity of his tone, that’s drawn readers to this original essayist for four and a half centuries and obliterates the long interval between him and us. He makes uncertainty fun.

 
The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness“…



 [Montaigne @dawn… M on Self-esteem (deB)… M quotes… M’s beam inscriptions… M “In Our Time” (BBC)…M’s tower…M’s Essays…]

Also today, we’ll consider the philosophical status of science. Montaigne the fallible skeptic actually had a better handle on it than Descartes, the self-appointed defender of scientific certainty. That’s because science is a trial-and-error affair, making “essays” or attempts at evidence/-based understanding through observation, prediction, and test, but always retreating happily to the drawing board when conjectures meet refutation.

To answer some of my own DQs today:

Q: Are there any “authorities” (personal, textual, political, religious, institutional, traditional…) to whom you always and automatically defer? Can you justify this, intellectually or ethically? A: I don’t think so. Whenever I feel a deferential impulse coming on I remind myself of the Emerson line about young men in libraries…

Q: Can you give an example of something you believe on the basis of probability, something else you believe because it has to be true (= follows necessarily from other premises you accept as true), and something you believe because you think it’s the “best explanation”)? Do you think most of your beliefs conform to one or another of these kinds of explanation? A: Hmmm… The sun will probably rise within the hour. I’m mortal. Life evolves. Yes.

Q: Do you think science makes genuine progress? Does it gradually give us a better, richer account of the natural world and our place in it? Is there a definite correlation between technology and scientific understanding? Do you think there is anything that cannot or should not be studied scientifically? Why? A: Yes, yes, yes, no. Science is a flawed instrument, because the humans who practice it are finite and fallible; but we have nothing to take its place. We shouldn’t be scientistic, to the neglect of all the other tools in our kit (including poetry, literature, history, humor), but we definitely should be as scientific as we can.

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1Gn01EN

Sad young pessimists

March 4, 2015
One of yesterday morning’s CoPhi reports featured the late David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech. The epitome of  intelligence and wisdom, he tells his young audience, is not knowledge but awareness. With awareness comes attention, perspective, sympathy, solidarity, and kindness. Without it, we lose our grip.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

How ironic & tragic that the brilliant and hyper-aware DFW couldn’t continue to hold it together himself. As he so poignantly says here, sustaining awareness and keeping your perspective over a lifetime is hard. But it’s doable. And it’s necessary. This also reminds me of the form of Stoic intelligence, along with multiple others mentioned by Howard Gardner.


A later report yesterday afternoon noted a troubling trend in recent scifi, away from hopeful visions of the future of the sort we associate with the humanism of Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. I think awareness may be the cure for that too. There’s nothing sadder, as Mark Twain said, than a young pessimist… except a bright and talented young pessimist. 

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1DN9cZr

Hobbes

March 3, 2015

“Hobbes (the English social contract philosopher, not the tiger) was fond of his dram,” sang the Pythons. But he was fonder of his stick. His walking stick. (See below.) 

He was also a Royalist, a materialist, a determinist, and a pessimist about human nature. He was “difficult to classify” (Russell). I had an undergrad prof at UMSL, back in the day, who spoke weirdly of “mainlining on utopia with Tommy Hobbes.” The Hobbesian utopia is no place I want to live.

But still I like much of what I know about him, particularly his daily morning ramble habit. 

I was amused when my old friend said he’d just spent five weeks in Britain and came away with nothing more philosophical than a visit to a castle where Hobbes had tutored. My colleague answered rightly by noting that an ancient English castle’s more likely to stimulate the philosophical imagination than is a dusty library in Tennessee. But in any event, Hobbes is a fascinating and over-maligned figure whose steps I look forward to tracking with our Study Abroad course in Britain.

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, hehobbes-walking-stick lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say pre-social contract humans were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Just that their lives would’ve been.

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel Warburton in his Little History, why do you lock your doors? 

Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it? How much have you? How secure do you feel? Still relevant questions in our time, and Hobbes’s answers were extreme indeed. But he was no monster, he was a peace-seeker and a civilizer. Most walkers are.

But, would life in a state of nature really be as bad as Hobbes thought? Most of us find most people less than totally distrustful, hostile, aggressive, and  vicious, most of the time. On the other hand, we’re most of us hardly “noble savages” either. Civilization and its discontent-engendering institutions account for a percentage of everyday bad behavior, but surely not all of it. So Hobbes may have been onto something, with his claim that we’re wired for trouble and must be subdued by something bigger than us all, something leviathan-like.

The Hobbesian threat of insecurity and fear of violent death, in our time, may be great enough to override everyone’s desire for personal freedom. Is safety more important than liberty? “Better red (or whatever) than dead?” Better to have government snoops monitoring your calls, emails, etc., than… than what, exactly?

Even if you agree with Hobbes that humans left to themselves would revert to base, aggressive, instinctive behavior, you may yet hesitate to agree that the only corrective for this condition is an all-powerful and authoritative central state. You may prefer not to concede the mechanistic, physicalistic, materialist model of humans as incapable of changing, of choosing to become more kind and compassionate, less fearful and selfish. You may hold out for a species capable of rewriting its default programming.

Speculations about human nature as inherently good or bad have always slighted the individuality of persons, absorbing them in abstractions about universal nature. We should seek instead to grasp the particularity of our separate natures. Our separate plural natures. Our plurality, subjectivity, uniqueness.

Common sense” gets things wrong often enough and egregiously enough, doesn’t it? – the flatness of earth, the rectitude of slavery, etc. – to give serious pause. Uncommon sense is in shorter supply, and greater demand.

Finally today: Descartes’ dreams of reality and appearance, and ours. Mine are not usually so lucid, but others say otherwise of theirs. Is it really possible to alter the “real world” by controlling your dreams? I’m skeptical.

And (as I keep asking): can someone please explain “Inception” to me?

via Blogger http://ift.tt/1wPvW8k


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 58 other followers