Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Hecht on Hobbes

October 11, 2018

LISTEN “The two great figures of atheism in the seventeenth century were Spinoza and Hobbes—although neither ever described himself as an atheist. Hobbes is best known today for the political science of his masterwork, Leviathan, which claims that without authoritarian government people’s lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It was a support for the monarchy of his time, but the book was at least as important for its role in the history of doubt. Hobbes said we do not know anything about God other than that he exists. His biblical criticism treated the Bible like any mixed-up historical text; he teased apart its different authors on the basis of literary and historical analysis, much as Spinoza did. The truth about religion, as Hobbes explained it, is that it had been formed and sustained by people in power, to control their subjects. He allowed that religion was good for people but said there was no reason for the priesthood ever to have power above the monarchy, since the clergy have no special information on God. They just operate the cult. Hobbes understood the world as a machinelike thing that runs itself. He also claimed that our souls are mortal (he cites Job saying so), but that the saved will be revived at Judgment Day while the others simply will not. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things,” are driven by anxiety about their future and make up fanciful relationships between events and “powers invisible,” and end up “in awe of their own imaginations, and in time of distress… invoke them, and as also in the time of an expected good success, to give them thanks, making the creatures of their own fancy, their Gods.” Hobbes said people believe religion as an explanation for why good and bad things happen. When someone “cannot assure himself of the true causes of things (for the causes of good and evil fortune for the most part are invisible), he supposes causes of them, either such as his own fancy suggesteth, or trusteth to the Authority of other men…””

Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History

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Nothing matters?

October 4, 2018

Pyrrho and the ancient skeptics also wanted us to believe that “nothing matters” (or so we’re told in our text today in CoPhi). But does it matter that nothing matters? This is no deep paradox, just a shallow confusion. But it makes for good animated satire.

Philosophy Matters (@PhilosophyMttrs)
Nothing Matters Part 2: Rick and Morty and Nietzsche …

I much prefer the late Christopher Hitchens’ statement about nihilism and meaning:

“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.”

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October 1, 2018

LISTEN: Skeptics

That’s the topic today in CoPhi

It’s October! I’m never skeptical about the MLB postseason, which gets a jumpstart with a pair of one-off pre-playoff tiebreakers today. No doubt about it. Go Cubs & Rockies.

Nor am I ever skeptical about Younger Daughter’s visits, which usually include fine dining. Pie season’s here! And the food truck dining was good at Good Neighbors Day on Saturday in Richland Park. Pulled pork makes a strong nonethical case against veganism, I’m afraid.

As for skepticism, I’m increasingly drawn to the Ruler of the Universe‘s version. “I say what it occurs to me to say when I think I hear people say things. More I cannot say.”

Say no more? Doubtful.

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Morning poems from Merwin

September 30, 2018

Dew Light

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

Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning

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

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September 26, 2018
An old post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for flat earth cartoon new yorker

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for pastafarians

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

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

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


Aristotle redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think, Susan Jacoby?

And what do you think about euthanasia, Bioethics?


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September 24, 2018

An old post:

It’s Socrates and the Socratics (including that dog Diogenes) today in CoPhi.*

In A&P, Billy Graham scared the devil (and a load of groundless guilt and shame he couldn’t shake in college) into a young Minnesotan named David,with his god-fearing Southern Baptist “graphic description of eternal damnation.” But then he had a driveway moment with the inestimable Julia Sweeney and began letting go of the fear, guilt, shame, and (eventually) faith. Soon he saw the incoherence of a theology that would hold finite beings like ourselves ultimately responsible for an infinite creator’s “preordained outcome.”

(My favorite moment from Sweeney’s tour de force one-woman show, btw, is her profane (though still somehow gentle) take-down of Deepak Chopra.)

A good question on this Valentine’s Day eve: do religious couples have happier relationships? Do atheists have better sex? To the latter, “one large correlational study”says yes. But Ethan found something more gratifying than the hunt for an atheist partner. And, he points out, being raised without religion is not the same as being raised atheist.

Here’s a problem I don’t recall wrestling with as a kid, perhaps because I “went forward” in terrified quest of formal salvation while still an only child – and only a child. Sen wonders “why God would send my nonbelieving brother to burn for all eternity and expect me to forget about him if I was in Heaven.”

The most disgraceful, pathetic, yet still laughable words directed to an inquiring child I’ve yet encountered were Ronnelle’s mother’s in reaction to his coming out,. “I rebuke you, you abominable lil codependent [?!] faggot. I curse the day I had you. You are dead to me. Get thee behind me Satan.” Wow. Thanks Mom.

Also in A&P today, we’ll hear a Fantasyland report. Kurt Andersen says religion is the ultimate conspiracy theory, with “God the mastermind plotting and executing His all-encompassing scheme, assisted by a team of co-conspirators, the angels and prophets.”

That may provide a smooth segue to Bioethics, where today we’re scheduled to hear a report on Dan Brown’s Origins. I haven’t read it, and am curious to know what it might have to do with our course topic. A clue, from an ambivalent review:

“Origin” grows out of questions raised by scientists who adopt atheism in a world where strict creationism has less and less relevance. The novel doesn’t paint Kirsch as an enemy of religion, though its prologue does show him arriving threateningly at a scenic abbey in Montserrat to challenge three religious leaders just after a meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions… But in the world of quantum computing, where Kirsch’s earlier pioneering work had broken boundaries, the divine was harder to apprehend. The book’s final destination reveals the essence of what Kirsch saw and created, and it inspires awe. Getting there is worth the roundabout journey.”

So, a mystery awaits.

*Socrates, they say, was firmly devoted to argumentative reason as a better method than revelation or hope. Should we call his devotion “faith“? Not if that means an unwavering refusal to seek and ponder all evidence, to entertain challenging questions, even to welcome those that question the utility of argumentative reason itself. His fabled humility, his ignorant form of wisdom, officially invites every challenge.

But unofficially, Socrates was definitely betting on reason against superstition and tradition for their own sake. His trust in reason was firm, his delight in philosophical argument was inextinguishable. He drew his dying breath in the middle of an argument his successors have continued to this day, as to the meaning and practical value of a life committed to virtue, curious inquiry, and intellectual integrity. He died in contempt of what he considered the misplaced presumption of fearing death more than vice, “which runs faster than death.”

That’s how we’ve come to see him, as a pedestal-mounted figure larger than life, gazing across the centuries in reproach of small-mindedness and irrational fear. We downplay his personal shabbiness and eccentricity, forgetting the actual figure he must have cut as the ancient Athenian equivalent of a street person. How did such a vagabond manage to ingratiate himself with the upper crust elites of his city? It was his spellbinding gift of gab, tiresome to many but entrancing (“bewitching,” said the smitten Alcibiades) to many more. People looked beyond the pug nose and the ugly-ass mouth (“more ugly even than an ass’s”) to the beauty within.

His conversation was compelling but it was not personally revealing. His version of dialecticwithheld affirmative assertion, instead soliciting others’ definitions and demonstrations in order to trip them over their own inconsistencies and send them (and us, peering over their shoulders) back to the philosophical drawing board.

Athenian democracy had just been overthrown by the Spartans and decimated by their Thirty Tyrants, as Socrates went to trial. His own anti-democratic leanings were well-known. 

If you were heading out on a journey by sea, Socrates asks Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.  Why Socrates Hated Democracy, SoL

But did he really hate democracy? Gottlieb says no, he was in fact too democratic for his time and place. He was an ultra-democrat, committed to the examined life for all. This may have sounded to some like an endorsement of “exaggerated individualism” but for Socrates the examined life is also the collaborative conversational life. “Philosophy is an intimate and collaborative activity: it is a matter for discussions among small groups of people who argue together in order that each might find the truth for himself. The spirit of such a pastime cannot accurately be captured in a lecture or a treatise.” It’s best captured in talk, preferably while walking. Hence Plato’s dialogues, and ours.

Not even the Delphic Oracle‘s authoritative declaration of Socrates’ wisdom could stifle the gadfly’s appetite for rational argument and inquiry, provoking him to “check the truth of it” for himself. Can we possibly take literally, then, his claim to philosophize at the behests of God or his daimon? No. He just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. 

He also thought it best not to weep and wail for our finitude, even at death’s door. “No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing…” Maybe he’ll get to meet his “heroes of the old days.” Or maybe he’ll just have a nice long sleep. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to worry about an unpleasant or hellish alternative. He was ahead of his time, and Epicurus’s, in this regard.
Socrates and Plato were both “unworldly” but in different ways, the former in his shambling indifference to social status, hygiene,and finery, the latter in regarding carnal existence as a form of incarceration in the shadow of eternal essences and Ideas. Socrates kept a sharper focus on the duties and blessings of this world, “not simply a preparation for something else.” And he thought we could all do that. “For Plato, philosophy was the ladder to this elevated world of the Forms, but not everyone could climb it.” For Socrates, “anybody could examine his own life and ideas and thus lead a worthwhile existence.”

The paradigmatic Socratic question: Is something good because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it’s good? The Socratic answer: it can’t be the former, that’s arbitrary. Real gods don’t play darts with the universe. Hypothetical gods shouldn’t, either.

What would he say about people who achieve wealth and success by behaving badly? Or about the state of our democracy? Would he agree with William James regarding “our national disease“? Would you?

We know how it ended for Socrates. They told him to shut up. He persisted (like Elizabeth Warren, and like Paul Kalinithi), until the hemlock shut him down. It’s up to the rest of us, now, to persist when we’re told to “shut up about the bad stuff.”

In Fantasyland, in addition to the aforementioned dot-connecting between conspiracy theorists and theists, we read of the Freemasons. What was their secret? Poore Richard said it’s no secret at all. It’s an open secret, isn’t it, that like fraternal boys’ clubs everywhere the Masons wear funny hats and engage in silly rituals? They’re not just for boys anymore, though. Lots of reputable (or famous) folk (including my old Dad) were in the club, leading some to suspect a nefarious world-historical plot. Cue Dan Brown again.

It’s all too common to hear Bible Belt evangelicals claim that AIDS or 9/11 or the latest natural disaster is God’s razor strap, designed to whack his children back into line. But did you know that many Yankees thought God whipped their butts in some early Civil War skirmishes to punish them for not yet outlawing slavery?

Mark Twain, quirky as always, had his own scapegoat for that war: Sir Walter Scott’s popular novels romanticizing the feudal old South. Scott’s “sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless” society is largely to blame for the war. Twain was a spinner of yarns and tall tales, but maybe that one’s not entirely fabricated of whole cloth.


Socrates & Plato in love

Another atrocity.

In CoPhi today it’s another (simpler) look at Socrates & Plato.  It was on this day in 399 BCEthat “Socrates was sentenced to death by the city of Athens for corrupting the minds of the youth of the city and for impiety.”

But first, something not completely different…

A recent John Lachs podcast interview reveals the heart and mind of “a wise old wizard” forever seeking the true pivot point between stoic acceptance of limits and a pragmatic “can do” spirit of intelligence and reason brought to bear on the boundless challenges of living. Living is hard, and Lachs loves to stir things up by saying the thing you least expect to hear. Here, for instance, he declares compassion and guilt useless emotions, and activism too often a misspent passion. In fact he’s one of the most compassionate and caring people I’ve ever known, and one of the most committed agents of constructive change. He’s a tireless proponent of liberty, hence a foe of “meddling”. He says we all need to stop telling others how to be happy, and let them seek their own good in their own ways. He’s a paragon of the purpose-driven life.

Another new podcast features my Vandy friends Aikin and Talisse, delivering 15 minute bursts of unscripted philosophizing. Worth a look, if you’re curious to see how “analytic” philosophers philosophize.

We would be remiss, the day after the holiday of love, not to take just a bit of time and spend a few good words on the subject. In Socrates in Love one of our contemporaries says “I’m worried my beloved America is becoming as loveless as ancient Athens in its days of decline.” There’s a lot not to love, lately and always, but also the reverse. The same speaker says Socrates “epitomized the fact that you’re meant to stay open to all views, to all human experiences, because that’s how you deepen your love for people and of wisdom.” All views, in this Age of Deplorables? No. But the spirit of the remark is true.

Is there any figurative truth to the old Greek myth that humans originally had four arms, four legs and a head with two faces, before Zeus split us into two separate parts so we’d have to search for our better halves? Is that any part of the story and glory of love? Or is it a formula for frustration and self-inflicted solitude?

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates say Diotima taught him all about amor. “She was my instructress in the art of love,” which she declares an intermediate “spirit” between mortals and the divine. It begins “from the beauties of earth and mount(s) upwards for the sake of that other beauty, the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is… beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he [the true philosopher of love] will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities…”

Sounds good, I guess, but these realities of a higher love sound a bit thin and wordy. Academic, even. On Valentines Day, and most days really, don’t we want something a little more substantial?

Romantic love is deemed to be of a higher metaphysical and ethical status than sexual or physical attractiveness alone. The idea of romantic love initially stems from the Platonic tradition that love is a desire for beauty-a value that transcends the particularities of the physical body. For Plato, the love of beauty culminates in the love of philosophy, the subject that pursues the highest capacity of thinking. The romantic love of knights and damsels emerged in the early medieval ages (11thCentury France, fine amour) a philosophical echo of both Platonic and Aristotelian love and literally a derivative of the Roman poet, Ovid and his Ars Amatoria. Romantic love theoretically was not to be consummated, for such love was transcendentally motivated by a deep respect for the lady; however, it was to be actively pursued in chivalric deeds rather than contemplated-which is in contrast to Ovid’s persistent sensual pursuit of conquests!

Modern romantic love returns to Aristotle’s version of the special love two people find in each other’s virtues-one soul and two bodies, as he poetically puts it. It is deemed to be of a higher status, ethically, aesthetically, and even metaphysically than the love that behaviorists or physicalists describe. IEP

That’s a step in the right direction, back down the ladder. Count on Aristotle to move away from the Academy and keep us grounded. But it was bachelor Nietzsche, of all people, who knew “it is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”

If you can believe the crowd that sources goodreads, Marilyn Monroe was the great authority on love. “You’ll never find that half who makes you whole and that goes for everything… [but] Keep trying… keep smiling, because life’s a beautiful thing and there’s so much to smile about.”

Plato was rightly (if insufficiently) “nagged by a doubt about the Academic way of life: ‘I feared to see myself at last altogether nothing but words, so to speak-a man who would never willingly lay hand to any concrete task.” That’s a reasonable concern. If you’re holding out for “absolute beauty” you may be spending a few holidays alone. Better to climb the ladder of love in both directions. Remember what Heraclitus said about the way up and the way down? Don’t kick that ladder away. The cave can be a very cozy place, with the right company, and your “better half” may not be a needle in a haystack after all.

In Fantasyland, we ponder pioneer legend Daniel Boone’s picturesque pastoral fantasy and supercelebrity, Thoreau’s rustic naturalism, Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” and the Barnum-esque episode in 1835 when it was widely believed that life had been discovered on the moon. Plus, Chicago’s Columbian exposition with its “fanstastic quasi-reality” architectural mock-ups, an early precedent-setting VR realization emulated four years later in Nashville and now, perpetually, in Las Vegas.

In A&P, Kevin regrets being “infected” by supernaturalism in Christian school when he was most vulnerable. “Indoctrination” is a hard word, but what else should we call the doctrinal training of six year olds? He intends to “inoculate” his own children against atheophobia, “the fear and loathing of atheists that permeates American culture.” He’s “all for reading” sacred texts, but not for sanitizing them by ignoring the distasteful bits. He finds Dan Barker‘s principles more humane than the ten commandments. I like the Vonnegut principle: “try to be kind to other people.” (Kurt put it more bluntly.)

Amy named her daughter after Wonderland’s Alice, in hopes of inspiring her to be courageous and follow her curiosity. Alice means Truth.

Adrienne is saddened that her sisters “do not seem to value their own reproductive rights” as much as they value Chik-Fil-A, and considers agnosticism a halfway house rather than a final destination.

Justus found “stilted” his friends’ repeated prayerful injunctions of “Lord” (if you’re a Simpsons fan you might hear what grates about that), finding more congenial company in the podcast universe.

In Bioethics, we’ll ask if gene editing will be mandatory, in our future.


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Democritus, Sophists, & more

September 19, 2018

An old post:
Today in CoPhi it’s Democritus and the Sophists, and reports on The God Dialogues and Kant (we weren’t supposed to get ahead of Descartes yet, so he’s out of order – and he’d really hatethat.)

In A&P, we read testimonials from atheists coming out of the closet and will hear a debate on why people believe. In Bioethics, it’s justice, life-extension, and the dream (or fantasy?) of a cure for aging. (Maybe that’s one big reason why some people believe: they’ve found no other effective cure, not even a placebo, for aging and dying).

Democritus, the “laughing philosopher” (did we note that Heraclitus was the “weeping philosopher“?) doesn’t really sound like such a barrel of laughs. He urged repentance, preferred a “well-ordered demeanor” and, Gottlieb tells us, was broadly contemptuous of human folly. Was he laughing with us or at us? But you could ask the same of Mark Twain, who damned us, and Kurt Vonnegut (impatient, as previously noted, with our species’ penchant for unkindness). Is it misanthropic to deplore misanthropy? It’s not unfunny.
Democritus may not been a side-splitter, and he may have been wrong about atoms being unsplittable, but his general outlook was astonishingly ahead of the game even if “he simply made it all up and luckily turned out to be right.” He was a lucky guy indeed, living (legend has it) to an astonishing 109 and then “cheerfully” (according to Simon Critchley’s Book of Dead Philosophers) pulling his own plug. Before that, if you can believe it, he extended his life by inhaling the aroma of fresh-baked bread. (If you can believe that, I’ll give you a great deal on a bridge.)

Some early Christians opposed atomism on the grounds that its explanatory hypothesis displaced divine fiat and jettisoned a personal afterlife (with persons and souls dissolved and remixed). That’s still the kicker behind lots of present-day science denialism, isn’t it?

Leucippus first influenced Democritus with the atoms-and-void idea. Later it was taken up by Epicurus, then Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, “the way things are“:

  • “All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.” 
  • O minds of mortals, blighted by your blindness! Amid what deep darkness and daunting dangers life’s little day is passed! To think that you should fail to see that nature importantly demands only that the body may be rid of pain, and that the mind, divorced from anxiety and fear, may enjoy a feeling of contentment!” 
  • Don’t think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with… All such argument, all such interpretation is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use. Nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use.
  • “What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” 
  • “The atoms in it must be used over and over again; thus the death of one thing becomes necessary for the birth of another.”
  • The main obstacles to the goal of tranquillity of mind are our unnecessary fears and desires, and the only way to eliminate these is to study natural science. The most serious disturbances of all are fear of death, including fear of punishment after death, and fear of the gods. Scientific inquiry removes fear of death by showing that the mind and spirit are material and mortal, so that they cannot live on after we die: as Epicurus neatly and logically puts it: “Death…is nothing to us: when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist.
Atomism grew up “when chemists and physicists developed sophisticated ways to measure material phenomena,” to lift them out of the murky realm of subjective and deniable opinion, and lower them down from the transcendent and resplendent but entirely invisible realm of eternal and indestructible objects.

And then we learned to blow them up. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita. Growing up is not necessarily the same as maturing, for a species, an individual, or a saber-rattling commander-in-chief. We’ll have done that when all our leaders learn to stop speaking flippantly about their “nuclear options” (and big buttons) that are nothing but MAD.

We mentioned Richard Dawkins’ rainbow the other day, today we’re invited to consider his related views on meaning and design (see Lucretius above). “Is there a meaning to life? What are we for?” We can summon answers without reverting to superstition, thanks to what we’ve learned about atoms and the void ever since we stopped embracing fantastic solutions to our existential puzzles and started charting the world’s actual (not alternative) facts. 

The great legacy of Periclean Athens is the value they and we (some of us) place on the ability to speak and debate persuasively, civilly, and sometimes disinterestedly. The old Greek sophistes, Sophists, the likes of Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, et al, shared that value to a much greater extent than is commonly conceded. They taught grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, literary criticism, music, law, religion, human and social origins, math, and natural science. Big History, some now call such a broad portfolio of academic interest. 
Their undeserved bad name seems to have come from the reigning animus people had to those early teachers for presuming to seek remuneration. Fortunately we no longer expect our teachers to live hand-to-mouth, not entirely anyway. (MTSU faculty is behind the salary curve, btw, an important fact for faculty retention.) The fraction of Sophists who deserved their bad name, and the bad name of contemporary sophists, is earned not by their paychecks but by their failure to invest in truth for its own sake. They “could not care less about truth,” peddled “ruses,” sought to portray a mere “semblance of wisdom without the reality.” There are someacademics and philosophers who fit that description, but you’re more likely to encounter them in law and politics.

In addition, Plato resented the bad Sophists for getting Socrates in trouble. Really he resented Athens and its too-clever satirists (like Aristophanes) for not discerning the difference between a bad Sophist, denizen of the “logic factory,” and a good Socrates.

Protagoras is the most interesting Sophist. What does “Man is the measure of all things” mean, if it means to embrace and applaud subjectivity? Does it have to mean an extreme personal relativism? Or cultural relativism? Or maybe something more innocuous like the view my old mentor Lachs calls “relationalism” – all things must be measured by standards and yardsticks actual humans can wield.  
“Protagoras apparently drowned in a shipwreck after he had been tried and banished (or in some stories condemned to death) for his agnostic religious views. He also wrote a treatise on wrestling.” (Critchley)

In Fantasyland, we’re reminded today of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s declaration: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  He didn’t mean that it is magic, but that magic thinkers can’t appreciate the difference between natural law and supernatural hocus pocus… and that too many of us are and will continue to be magic thinkers, until we finally grow up and accept childhood’s end. “There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”

Homeopathy is magical thinking, in Andersen’s book. And phrenology, and mesmerism, and Ben Carson‘s Seventh Day Adventism, and so-called Christian Science, and countless other varieties of pseudo-scientific snake-oil miracle-whipped charlatanry.

“Matter cannot suffer,” said Mrs. Eddy. It quite evidently can, as it can do all the things we witness. That was William James’s brilliant answer to those who would denigrate materialism as a philosophy incapable of accounting for the wonder of life. “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

The California Gold Rush reoriented a lot of Americans’ gaze back to the literal ground  of our real material world. Heaven can wait. But can we? We’re like patient, diligent, long-term-planning ants some of the time, but then impatient, party-hardy grasshoppers the rest. Our “wilder, faster, and looser” side may not be in it for the long haul after all.

In A&P, James M. says Mormons are taught that the Holy Spirit communicates “an unmistakable feeling inside of you” and that an allegiance to the GOP is one of those feelings. He also reports a strong sense of maternal loyalty as holding him tight to the church, until he found refuge at Starbucks and the Boulevard (or their equivalent).

Shawn’s parents were highly educated but not critically minded, retaining childhood’s fear of paternal retribution. They might have benefited from Emerson’s answer to parental clinginess: “You’re trying to make another you. One’s enough.”

“Hyperactive agency detection” is a phrase I’ll be borrowing from David, with whom I once shared a misplaced reluctance to raise the shade on my unbelief. I thought the Baptists at Belmont would be pleased, back in ’99 or so, to know I wasn’t a “none”… Silly me, to require the illusion that my would-be employers would be as ecumenically pluralistic as they claimed.

Some CoPhi questions: If everything is composed of atoms, does it follow that there is no life after death? Does atomism in fact “liberate [us] from superstition, fear of death, and the tyranny of priests”? If thought consists in the motion of mind-atoms, can we freely think our own thoughts? Or are we passive spectators of “our” minds? What difference does it make, if particles are inseparable from forces and fields and bundles of energy and thus cannot be proved to be “unsplittable” (as the ancient atomists said)? Is it “reasonable to suppose that every sort of world crop[s] up somewhere”?

Brian Greene (@bgreene)
The observable universe extends for about 92 billion light-years. No human has ventured farther from Earth than 1.29 light-seconds.


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Milesians and more

September 17, 2018

An old post:
In CoPhi today we return to The Dream of Reason. What an apt title at this strange moment in our country’s history, when the drowsy absence of commitment to reason, fact, and truth in the new administration feels increasingly and disorientingly somnambulistic. Gerald Ford’s “long national nightmare” has a sequel. It’s been said before…

It’s very tempting, in these stress-inducing early days of the new fabulating denialist regime, to just nod off and request a wake-up call when it’s safe and sane out there again. A leader really should read, and breathe fresh air at least once a day. (“Mr. Drumpf, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television… Mr. Drumpf can go for days without breathing in fresh outside air.”) New studies show, Mr. President, that “when people get up and move, even a little, they tend to be happier…” 
But as Lord Russell said, that’s a form of slumber to conjure monsters. We’ve got to keep our eyes open. Fight the power, for the planetSapere aude. Make the world safe again for the dreamers. And Dreamers.
It does in fact feel a bit like retreating into an ancient dreamscape, to take up the topic of preSocratic Milesians and Pythagoreans at a moment when every time we look up we discover the jarring rollback of another hard-won milestone of progress, on healthcare, the environment, gender equality, the 1st amendment, immigration…
But we must remind ourselves, those old first philosophers were modeling the very activity we must emulate now more than ever: throwing off convention, defying false authority, standing up to face the facts and seek the truth. They didn’t know they were pre-anything, but went ahead and invented the best method of fact-finding and whistleblowing we’ve yet hit upon. They were our first, if not our best, naturalists (physici), and they were smarter than popularly believed. 
Thales may or may not have fallen in a well or monopolized the olive presses, but his claim about the ubiquity of H2O, “intimately connected with life” and flowing wherever life has managed to sustain and replicate itself, was not crazy at all. “In order to refute him we have to reason with him,” as opposed I suppose to just stating the facts and telling the truth on him. (Or “giving him hell,” as Harry Truman had it.) 
If Thales was a reductionist and precursor of Ockham and Thoreau (“simplify, simplify“), Anaximander “exemplified an additional and equally fundamental” scientific impulse, to peek behind the veil of appearances to discover the world’s real generative machinery. He thought it was something determinative of all the oppositions we encounter in phenomena (hot-cold, wet-dry, red-blue) but itself indeterminate and without “observable qualities of its own.” He called it apeiron (απειρων).

You can’t mention him without also mentioning the other preSocratic “Anax”‘s (unless you’d rather not be gratuitously confused) – Anaxagoras, whose matter/mind distinction has dogged us every since, and Anaximenes, who said the world comes from a vaporous mist. Onward through the fog.

What an odd duck was Pythagoras, with his numbers mysticism and belief in reincarnation and antipathy for beans and love for the inaudible celestial “music of the spheres.” Study numbers, geometry, astronomy, and music, he instructed, and you’ll grasp ultimate order in the cosmos.

Young Bertrand Russell had a Pythagorean and Platonic phase (as indeed did Plato), alleging our “highest good” in the mind’s spectral “union with the universe.” He later rethought that commitment, but in The Conquest of Happiness Old Russell still spoke of conjoining our respective destinies with the great “stream of life” (as I recently told congregants of the Sunday Assembly) that both antedates and succeeds our brief groundtime on Earth. Rising above petty day-to-day worries to contemplate eternity does in fact allow a bit of it to rub off on us, to lift us up. For a time.

Russell had another rethink, another “retreat from Pythagoras,” ultimately giving up the hyper-rationalist “feeling that intellect is superior to sense.” No. Intellect and sense have to collaborate, ideas, sensations, and perceptions have to come together and sound the alarm, to get us up and doing. Sleep then can be the restorative it’s supposed to be, not an escape from responsible engagement with monsters and tweeters and oblivious fabulators who would trap us in their own terrible needs.

In Fantasyland today, Kurt Andersen says our “first great American heroine” Anne Hutchinson, early “feminist crusader,” mansplaining target, etc., was also an early establisher of the subsequent  American Way: “so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality… she didn’t recognize ambiguity or admit to self-doubt. Her perceptions and beliefs were true because they were hers and because she felt them so thoroughly to be true… [she] didn’t have to study any book but the Bible to arrive at the truth. Because she felt it. She knew it.” That certainly takes her down a peg. And us.

Freedom of thought in early America leaned in to supernaturalism and self-made-reality just as Europe’s enlightenment – in the persons of Shakespeare, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and the like – was going in the opposite direction, towards the Age of Reason. Here it was “freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished.”

And so we got witches in Salem. “In 1692 virtually no one in New England disbelieved in witches.” That’s the legacy of Protestantism, says Andersen, no less than its contributions to its eponymous “work ethic.”

In A&P today we finish Julian Baggini’s Very Short Introduction. Baggini makes the case for naturalism and optimal rationality, wherein we “don’t have to plug any gaps with speculation, opinion, or any other ungrounded beliefs.” He notes that while “avowed” atheism may have a more recent lineage, its precursors include the ancient pre-Socratic Milesians mentioned above. “Anaxagoras is the earliest historical figure to have been indicted for atheism” (Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History… & see Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World – “Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills”)

Against the canard that Hitler, Stalin, and other monstrous modern autocrats have all been atheists, Baggini observes that none of them was “straightforwardly atheist” while all have “sacralized” themselves to quasi-religious status – and “sacralization is utterly foreign to mainstream rational atheism.” Is militancy per se foreign to it as well?
“Most religious believers justify their faith by an inner conviction,” and many of them will probably insist that that’s also how non-believers justify their faithlessness. We should talk about that. Do inner convictions ever suffice to justify anything at all? Isn’t subjectivity or temperament an inevitable factor in philosophy (as James said), even though western philosophy’s official view is that it should not be? Or is inner conviction just a mirror of external, local contingencies of birth that we’re not obliged to honor, defer to, or even respect?
“Avoid dogmatism.” Hard to argue with that, but maybe it’s also harder to follow than we want to admit. Foot-stamping and cursing aside, how many freethinkers will readily admit there might be something to theism after all? I’ll admit there’s this in it, for some: peace of mind. But peace of mind shouldn’t be bought with false currency.

Humanists don’t all agree on what a humanist is, but I agree with Baggini’s broad definition: “Humanists are simply atheists who believe in living purposeful and moral lives.”

Here’s what I should have said to my friend Brian over beers at the Boulevard the other day: “In the case of ghosts, we not only lack a rational explanation of how ghosts can exist, we also lack any rational reasons to suppose that they do.” 

And here’s one of Baggini’s parting statements: “Atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us… [this is] the precondition for meaningful adult lives.” That will strike plenty of theists as unfair. How does it strike us, A&P? It strikes me as a sharply-stated but not incorrect echo of Carl Sagan’s milder, but no less protentous, Pale Blue Dot proclamation of “no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

So in other words: grow up, humanity. Childhood’s end beckons. Unlike Sir Arthur C. Clarke, I’m not worried about that marking the end of our happiness as well. (“They would never know how lucky they had been. For a lifetime, mankind had achieved as much happiness as any race can ever know. It had been the Golden Age. But gold was also the color of sunset, of autumn…”)

In Bioethics today we weigh the influence – directive and sometimes distortive – of various “perspectives” (feminist, cultural, traditional, religio-philosophic). There’s no such thing as a view from nowhere, so we must make an honest accounting of how our respective points of view may predispose our conclusions.

The “Perspectives” chapter asks whether and how professional healthcare providers should negotiate or accommodate the various framework beliefs of patients. Or their parents. How should physicians treat and care for children whose parents object to medical intervention on religious grounds?

James again: we all have a philosophy that “determines the perspective in [our] several worlds… a more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.” It’s our task today, and most every day, to notice those perspectives and talk about them. Lucky us.


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East and west and yin and yang

September 13, 2018

An old post:
So much to talk about in CoPhi today, spanning east to west. My hook this morning is the ever-elusive Tao, the way of natural harmony and balance and reconciliation of mutual opposition. It’s hard to talk about (“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao” etc.) but maybe that’s why we ought to try.
M 30/T 31 PW 18-39. Buddhism & JainismConfucius & Taoism, Early Greek philosophy (pre-Socratics), SocratesPlato. RECOMMENDED: JMH ch3 & p11-24
Two of the Tao’s better trans-cultural emissaries are Fritjof Capra and Benjamin Hoff, authors respectively of The Tao of Physics and The Tao of Pooh.
I’m a follower of Pooh from way back, he was Older Daughter’s favorite bear. (There have been a few, eh Boo-Boo?)
Capra, though, I’m really just finally beginning to explore, through the back door: David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics . Maybe it’s a load of quantum flapdoodle, as skeptic Michael Shermer & others say [review of What the #$*! Do We Know?], but it’s challenging (or at least provocative) flapdoodle.
Our tendency to divide the perceived world into individual and separate things  and to experience ourselves as isolated egos in this world,” Capra contended, had long been understood in Eastern traditions as a mere illusion which comes from our measuring and categorizing mentality. Western observers’ impressions of the physical world as pointillist and fundamentally cleaved off from human consciousness arose not from the nature of reality per se, but from the mental filters and habits we happened to have imposed…  three centuries after Newton and Descartes, quantum physicists had only just learned that “we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves”—a deep insight that Capra considered comparable to age-old Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist teachings.
JMH as usual has helpful things to say about all our topics today.  Consider her remarks on the Buddha’s conception of karma, for instance, and how questions like whether there’s a God or an afterlife or an immortal immaterial soul are unhelpful.
He said worrying about these things would be like a man pierced by an arrow asking questions about the family origins of the man that made the weapon… He said that to ask where the soul goes after death is like extinguishing a campfire and then asking whether the fire went east or west when it left. “The question is not put rightly.” Was there a God? Were there gods? The Buddha said these are questions “which do not edify.”
And here we can note an east-west meeting of the minds. Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates in particular were always more interested in the practical business of how to live well, than in speculative and metaphysical  questions about ultimate truth.
And this brings us to Socrates and Plato. The former “taught” the latter, who in turn taught Aristotle.  Each student disagreed with his mentor in big ways, without abandoning attention or respect. (Good role models for us all, we co-philosophers and listeners.)  But there’s a real question about whether Plato the metaphysician didn’t exaggerate Socrates’ interest in the hypothetical world of essences, Ideas, and Forms and understate his preoccupation with ethics. It’s the primarily-ethical bearing of Socrates’ inquiries, after all, that gets Solomon to label him a Sophist (and to intend by that a compliment).
Socrates was not opposed to the Sophists; he was the best of them…
Socrates believed that virtue is the most valuable of possessions, that the truth lies beyond the “shadows” of our everyday experience, and that it is the proper business of the philosopher to show us how little we really know. PW
Socrates “knew nothing and yet was wiser than most, since at least he knew that he knew nothing.” JMH continues:
Socrates counts among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth. The Socratic method is an eternal questioning. This is not relativism; there is truth to be found, but human beings may best approach it through doubt than conviction.
Plato’s allegory of the Cave, in Republic  Book VII, is a thinly-veiled homage to his teacher Socrates (whose “last days” he witnessed and was deeply affected by), though his own philosophy went considerably further than Socrates’ in asserting metaphysical knowledge of another world.

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The monk and the philosopher in the Anthropocene

September 12, 2018

In CoPhi today, our attention turns to the dichotomy noted last time between eastern and western approaches to philosophy. That split is well exemplified by The Monk and the Philosopher, the monk being Matthieu Ricard (“the happiest man in the world“), the philosopher his father Jean-Francois Revel. If anyone is in a position to bridge the difference it must be Ricard, who walked away from a promising scientific career in molecular biology to go and study Buddhism with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In  Environmental Ethics, we wrap up our consideration of Erle Ellis’s Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction.

Some worry that recognizing the Anthropocene might be to issue a blank “anything goes” check, while others – and I’m with them – think that failing to do so is to deny the reality of climate change. Others still think it all a distractive labeling debate, a re-arranging of deck chairs as the ship slowly (or not so slowly) sinks.

In any event, it seems undeniable that humans have become a force of nature, geophysical agents at whose hands society and nature have merged. Our story is Big History, and so far it’s the story of wealthy nations (the USA, with China lately playing catch-up but still lagging far behind, per capita) and individuals emitting carbon pollutants at a rate wildly out of proportion with their numbers. Our story has largely been that of capitalism ascendant, remunerating short-term, self-interested thinking and in the process transforming the Earth by producing massive social inequalities.

So what we may really need, at this stage, is no single account but “many different Anthropocene narratives, to engage with the broadest range of human needs.” Hence, the rationale for our course project of crowd-sourcing a variety of “cli-fi” narratives to furnish alternative visions of our future. “The visions we offer our children shape the future,” said Carl Sagan. Our vision quest is no idle daydream, it’s the preparation our survival demands.

Donna Haraway, inspired by sci-fi writer H.P. Lovecraft, has offered her imaginative vision of an alternative story, that of the Chthulucene. Her message: individuality is an illusion, all of life is connected, is “kin.”

“The Anthropocene demands action,”beginning with an act of acknowledgement that we face serious challenges of our own design, that will require some serious noospheric thought to overcome.

Are we the Promethean technology masters who must and will save ourselves, or are we hubristic Icarus, about to get singed by our own overconfidence? Too soon to say, but “the prospect of a better planetary future” is not beyond the pale. After all, we’ve banned DDT, protected endangered wildlife, created parks and preserves, invested in carbon-neutral energy systems, developed solar technology and electric cars, issued LEED certification… But past is prologue. We’re now called to think large and long. Can we do it? Set the clock, for 10,000 years. There’s no time like the Long Now.

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