Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


July 27, 2016

There’s light at the end of Arthur Herman’s cave, but you have to squint past Ayn Rand and some dubious claims and insinuations about the virtue of selfishness, the inevitability of economic chaos, and the necessity of militaristic aggression in the name of freedom to spot it. It’s the recognition that our stroll with Plato and Aristotle goes on, that we’ll glean insight and wisdom from the empiricist and rationalist traditions so long as we continue to walk and talk with them both. It’s the light of mental breadth, pluralist inclusion, and civil conversation.

But a big question remains. Are free markets our last best hope as a civilization, or the biggest obstacle to its survival? Herman does not finally resolve that question to my satisfaction, so we’ll be putting it to Naomi Klein in Environmental Ethics starting in about three weeks. Her claim:

“…our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life… But because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us. Gentle tweaks to the status quo stopped being a climate option when we supersized the American Dream in the 1990s, and then proceeded to take it global.” Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate

It all comes down, once again, to securing the conditions of freedom. One of them is gender equality and opportunity. I hope every mother, father, and brother is as cheered this morning as I am to have seen that glass ceiling shatter for our daughters in Philadelphia last night. Light, more light!

6:20/5:52, 74/90/72, 7:55

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Soma time

July 26, 2016

“Most of one’s life is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself from thinking,” thought Aldous Huxley. That’s why his Brave New Worlders were so smitten with the happy distraction of soma. It may be why we consume our politics as entertainment.

Last night’s convention debut was entertaining enough. The impromptu comedy act of Franken and Silverman was good, we got to hear the First Lady’s own words from the First Lady herself, and Bernie did his bit for party unity. 
In a thoughtfully-devised politics we’d now look forward to hearing the nominee’s substantive speech Thursday night, we’d then reflect on our stark choice, and next week we’d vote. 
In our circus politics, instead, we’ll spend unconscionable sums on 100+ days of entertaining, often outrageous, mostly irrelevant campaign distraction and false-or-misleading advertizing first. Then we’ll roll the die.
What fun. Pass the soma, please.

6:15/5:52, 75/95, 7:56

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July 25, 2016

Star Trek Beyond was great fun. It’s always a deep delight to revisit the franchise that’s given us a hopeful future since 1966. The dual dedication to Anton Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy was sad and poignant. Idris Elba’s villain’s misuse of life-extending technology underscored the point: the time of our mortal lives is necessarily bounded, “forever” is not for us.

I’m still struggling, though, to make sense of the whole Spock/Admiral Spock duality. The young Commander learns that the future version of himself has died. It’s a lesson with profound personal implications, to be sure. But how is it possible for any “logical” thinker not to have known it already?

As Spock is continually re-learning, it’s probably best not to overthink such things. LLAP.

5:40/5:51, 76/94/74,7:56

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Carroll’s Considerations

July 23, 2016

Sean Carroll is one wise theoretical physicist and “poetic naturalist.” His Ten Commandments Considerations, resisting the unfortunate human impulse to tell one another what to do, deferring instead to one another’s mental freedom:

  • Life Isn’t Forever.
  • Desire Is Built Into Life.
  • What Matters Is What Matters To People.
  • We Can Always Do Better.
  • It Pays to Listen.
  • There Is No Natural Way to Be.
  • It Takes All Kinds.
  • The Universe Is in Our Hands.
  • We Can Do Better Than Happiness.
  • Reality Guides Us.

Naturalists accept that life is going to come to an end — this life is not a dress rehearsal for something greater, it’s the only performance we get to give. The average person can expect a lifespan of about three billion heartbeats. That’s a goodly number, but far from limitless. We should make the most of each of our heartbeats.

The finitude of life doesn’t imply that it’s meaningless, any more than obeying the laws of physics implies that we can’t find purpose and joy within the natural world. The absence of a God to tell us why we’re here and hand down rules about what is and is not okay doesn’t leave us adrift — it puts the responsibility for constructing meaningful lives back where it always was, in our own hands.

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
Big Picture at Google (video)

5:49/5:49, 75/92

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July 22, 2016

To take a walk, says the poet, pack a rod.

This is farming country.
The neighbors will believe
you are crazy
if you take a walk
just to think and be alone.
So carry a shotgun
and walk the fence line.
Pretend you are hunting
and your walking will not
arouse suspicion.

I never worry about what the neighbors may think. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad” etc. Some of them are out here walking with me, in the relative cool of summer morning. The others, snoozing and lazing away the only habitable part of this infernal heat wave, are the crazy ones.

But this is Tennessee. This is America. Any and all may be packing, and carrying an attitude. Best walk softly and conceal yours.

5:40/5:49, 76/97

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July 21, 2016

The train stops in Lewis Carroll’s, John Locke’s, and Harry Potter’s Oxford today. Any one of them might plausibly have said “it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” But it was Alice’s creator who said it, and who had her believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Good for him. For her. The wonderful thing about a tabula rasa is how easily it can be filled with fun and magic.

Carroll penned so many marvelous lines. This one, in a better world, would shut down that insane mistake by the lake (“it’s a put on”) in Cleveland this week:  “I don’t think…” then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.”

Christ Church College is next on our itinerary.

6 am/5:48, 73/97, 7:59

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Magnificent desolation

July 20, 2016

Taking the v-train to old Oxford today, in that other possible world.

In this one we’re talking Nietzschean post-nihilism, Jamesian pragmatism, Jefferson deism, and inevitably the specter of living in a time when  liars, plagiarists, and sociopaths may inherit the earth. A far cry from the world we imagined on this day in 1969, when Buzz Aldrin toasted the moon’s “magnificent desolation.”

When Neil Armstrong got back he talked about looking at Earth from space: he said: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

If only we could send Colbert’s orange manatee with the giant ego for a lunar lesson in humility.

5:50/5:47, 74/95/72, 8:00

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Signifying nothing

July 19, 2016

In an alternate universe we’re at Stratford-upon-Avon today, walking with Will Shakespeare, 400 years gone now. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

In an even better alternate universe we’re not waking up this morning from the most farcical political theater ever staged by an American presidential nominating convention. Drumpf’s preposterous silhouette-and-fog entrance. Mrs. Drumpf plagiarizing the First Lady’s 2008 convention speech on honesty and integrity, after explicitly lying about it to a live television audience. Rudy Giuliani, sputtering nonsense and threatening to spit out his teeth. The Duck Hunter guy. Wave after wave of ridiculous misinformed bluster about the country’s dark decline.

It was all so bizarre and yet, in this unhinged season, from this gonzo cast of misfits and con artists, so sadly predictable. What poor players, strutting and fretting and making a mockery of their hour on the big stage. We desperately need the Bard to translate this absurd moment into suitable tragicomic nonsense we can briefly enjoy.

The guy who put lipstick on the pig is remorseful, at least.

Thankfully, we at least got the real Colbert back for a fleeting moment, and his rusticating pal Jon Stewart.

And thankfully it’s all an idiot’s tale soon to be heard no more. Just not soon enough.

6:15/5:46, 79/92/72, 8:00

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Freedom of & from religon

July 18, 2016

“True piety in a reasonable world is the pursuit of happiness through the improvement of the understanding. Call it the religion of freedom.”

That’s Matthew Stewart on Nature’s God, whose subject is the hybrid Epicurean-Lockean-Spinozist conception that informed the Deist worldview of Jefferson, Franklin, and most of the founding generation. It casts a very different light on the claim that they intended to forge a conventionally Christian nation, and puts to shame the restrictive pieties of people like Mike Pence – people who think they know God’s “heart” to exclude women’s reproductive freedom.

Of course, a world in which people like Mike Pence and his unspeakable sponsor (“this good man” he repeatedly called him in their 60 Minutes interview, hahaha) ascend to wide public notice, let alone actual power and influence, can hardly be called reasonable.

But if it matters what the founders said and meant, as conservatives insist it does, it’s clear that the ticket about to be punched in Cleveland does not come close to embodying true piety.

And, for those of us working our way through The Cave and the Light, it’s clearly misleading to suggest that Jefferson and Madison were or would be on the side of those who misuse religion as license to limit personal freedom.

6 am, 5:46, 73/96

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Moor philosophy

July 16, 2016

Our next English peregrination: Yorkshire.

Enough of Thought, Philosopher;
Too long hast thou been dreaming
Unlightened, in this chamber drear –
While summer’s sun is beaming –
Space-sweeping soul, what sad refrain
Concludes thy musings once again?
– Emily Brontë (1818-1848), ‘The Philosopher’

…One of the questions we consider in class is why there have been so few female philosophers until fairly recent times. We first read Plato’s arguments in The Republicas to why there cannot be a truly just society until all citizens, both male and female, are given equal opportunity to excel; then we study Aristotle’s rejoinder that such a policy would be folly, since women are by nature inferior to men, intellectually and physically. This point is reiterated later in the course by selections from the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a vociferous misogynist, who argued that women were really just big children, unable to understand abstract thought. (Ironically, his mother was one of the first female novelists to publish under her own name. Understandably, she did not get along very well with her son.) To balance these arguments for women’s inherent inferiority, I then have the class read several poems by Emily Brontë, including ‘The Old Stoic’ (below), ‘I See Around Me Tombstones Grey’, and the above-quoted ‘The Philosopher’…
The American philosopher John Dewey once remarked that when women philosophers became prominent, the very notion of what constitutes philosophical inquiry would be greatly expanded. By insisting on their right to be heard, and by demonstrating their keen powers of observation, the Brontë sisters have had a powerful and enduring impact on the history of thought…

The Old Stoic, by Emily Brontë (1818-1848)

Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanish’d with the morn:
And, if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”
Yea, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore:
In life and death a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Emily Brontë – Philosopher, by Tim Madigan

To Walk InvisibleWalking the Bronte Trail

6 am/5:44, 76/88/69, 8:02

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