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The dream begins

January 19, 2017

We begin this semester in CoPhi with Anthony Gottlieb’s acclaimed Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Last semester we did Bertrand Russell’s History, so a bit of cross-referencing seems in order. Two storytellers are better than one, say we pluralists and CoPhilosophers.

 Gottlieb’s approach is avowedly journalistic, in the best sense: go straight to the primary source whenever possible, question everything, and be clear. All of that is easier said than done, especially (when exploring complicated ideas) clarity. But it’s to Gottlieb’s credit, as it was to Russell’s, to make that a priority.  James’s “stubborn effort to think clearly,” and Russell’s “unusually obstinate” description, may seem mere common sense. 
But common sense is itself often stubbornly, obstinately wrong. That’s “the joke at the heart of philosophy” as it deliberately spurns conventional wisdom, in search of the real thing. Sometimes the joke’s on us philosophers, sometimes on the commoners. But of course we all recur to common sense, and we all need to get better at putting it on the rack of critical scrutiny.
Western science was created when the first (western) philosophers stopped settling for the “God(s) did it” non-explanation of things and went looking for natural causes. That led to enlightenment, of a sort, and to Gottlieb’s next volume, The Dream of Enlightenment. Perhaps one or more of our reporters will enlighten us about it soon. It’s on tap for next semester.

But today, our topic is bounded by these questions: What’s your definition of “philosophy”? Do you have a favorite philosopher? Can you summarize your current, personal philosophy of life?

A glance back, to last August 24:

We’re off, with Bertrand Russell’s introductory chapter in his History. There we’re cautioned against the “impertinent insolence towards the universe” of dogmatic theology, and directed instead to the gray space between certainty and paralysis that good philosophers occupy. Then we’re told that the Stoics presaged Christianity, that Montaigne’s “fruitful disorder” made him a representative man of his age, that Descartes’ subjectivist inflation of ego as philosophic method was insanely contrary to common sense, and that every community must negotiate the extreme opposite dangers of either too stultifying a regard for tradition or too much personal independence.

Those are just a few of the countless sharp opinions Russell will deliver, with audacity and biting wit, in this narrative. Another: that philosophy occupies a No Man’s Land between theology and science. So, we’ll wonder: are no theologians or scientists philosophers? Is there more than one way to be a philosopher? Here I’ll invoke Professor James’s observation that we all have some implicit philosophy or other. For a No Man’s Land, it’s pretty crowded.

Other points to ponder, prompted by this chapter: Is there any higher duty than that to one’s fellow humans? What do we owe the state, our contemporaries, our successors? In what specific ways should it matter to us that we’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving, on a distant spiral arm of a relatively nondescript galaxy, one among trillions? Ought we ever to acknowledge the authority of any individual or institution, to settle matters of belief and conscience? (Good question to ask on the anniversary of the first edition of the Gutenberg Bible.)

Some students will become frustrated with all these questions. I’ll happily suggest answers, and will not hesitate to advocate for my own. But the key takeaway today is that in philosophy the questions always outpace the answers, and we’re okay with that. Love it, in fact.

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Welcome to class

January 17, 2017

That was a nice long winter’s sabbatical, much of which we enjoyed spending with Older Daughter’s new pup Scooter. (The old pup Angel was less thrilled to welcome the interloping lapdog.)

 

But Scooter’s gone off to college now, out of state, and it’s time for me to get back to school too. Happy Opening Day! Three sections of Intro (CoPhilosophy, I call it, or just CoPhi) and Bioethics. Also looking forward to a directed readings course in Metaphysics and Epistemology, and a senior Honors thesis.

What to say on Day 1? Just to strap on sturdy shoes and prepare to entertain lots of questions-and-answers. I’m still peripatetic, and it’s gonna be unseasonably warm in middle Tennessee all week.

And, let’s look to our Bibliophile-in-chief (for three more days) for inspiration, while we still can. In college “he spent a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.” That’s it: we’re here to strip down and test our beliefs, to challenge ourselves to think for ourselves, to open ourselves to a wider universe of humble hopeful reflection.

Maybe I can also squeeze in a little inspiration from one of my own favorite authors. He was addressing newborns, but aren’t we all newbies on Day 1?

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

I actually have a couple more rules, in my classes, but they’re all in exactly that spirit.


Kurt said something else that seems quite timely this week too: “So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”

And so it goes. Hi-ho. Let’s go!

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Sunday Assembly Nashville

December 12, 2016

Basking this morning in the afterglow of yesterday’s Sunday Assembly in Nashville. I’m not very tribal, but I have indeed found my tribe.

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Happy birthday Flaubert, who I did not quote at Sunday Assembly. “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”


One more thing. What James told unhappy Henry Adams: “Though the ULTIMATE state of the universe may be its … extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the PENULTIMATE state might be … a happy and virtuous consciousness. In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, ‘I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.'” AMEN.

6 am/6:50, 50/51/36, 4:31

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Happiness: A Free Person’s Worship

December 9, 2016

Family

December 9, 2016

“To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future.” 

Russell says this in the “Family” chapter of Conquest of Happiness, and while he’s talking about the stream of generations and the “procreative impulse” he’s not saying you have to have children of your own to to feel a part of the stream of life. Or rather, he’s saying that happy people claim a lasting stake in the life of their species and care about “the world that shall come after them” because we are all family, they are all our children.
That’s what John Dewey meant too, when he said we’re all links in the continuous human community. Personal death does not end all, the loss of those near us does not obliterate the streaming possibilities of life to come, the tragic aspect of life does not exhaust it.
But stagnation and social hostility might. We must enlarge our hearts and transcend selfish isolation. We must evolve past envy, past the age of Drumpf.

“We have reached a stage in evolution which is not the final stage. We must pass through it quickly, for if we do not, most of us will perish by the way, and the others will be lost in a forest of doubt and fear. .. To find the right road out of this despair civilised man must enlarge his heart as he has enlarged his mind. He must learn to transcend self, and in so doing to acquire the freedom of the Universe.”

And with that, the secular sermon’s done. Amen.

6 am/6:48, 26/35/22, 4:30

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Time flies

December 8, 2016

Horace Who?

The one who said, before Mr. Keating, to seize the day. Carpe…. carpe… carpe diem. 


I haven’t seen Dead Poets Society in awhile, but I don’t recall that he said the rest of it. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. “As we speak cruel time is fleeing. Seize the day, believing as little as possible in the morrow.” Alternatively, “In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebbed away, Seize the present, trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.”

My minimal groggy thought this morning, after the dog got me up at 3 am, is that old Horace had a point. Tempus fugit. And that’s really the first and last thing we should need to know, to motivate our quest to conquer happiness.

Happy birthday Bill Bryson, who said we have three reasons never to be unhappy.

And happy birthday to Walter Mitty’s creator James Thurber, who said “If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons. ” And: “You can fool too many people, too much of the time.”

A bit of misanthropy, though not so much as Schopenhauer’s, conduces to happiness in hard times too.

6:30/647, 34/35/20, 4:30

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Flickering attention

December 7, 2016

“A Free Man’s Worship” was originally “The Free Man’s Worship” (1903), a more than merely stylistic change.

Russell’s trajectory generally was away from precise Platonic exclusion and towards a pluralistic loosening of attitude and judgment. He would later declare his “outlook on the cosmos and human life… substantially unchanged” when he wrote Conquest of Happiness in 1930, but if FMW was written “only for people in great unhappiness” the change of article reflects a change of heart as well. Where the younger man wrote to steel himself and his readers against the “unyielding despair” of ultimate cosmic finitude and indifference to human destiny, the more seasoned philosopher “turned his atttention to other things” and focused on practical strategies for flourishing on a more human scale. So, from 1927, another text for my impending secular sermon:

…if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending—something dead, cold, and lifeless.

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out—at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation—it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things. “Why I Am Not A Christian

That’s what Dr. Flicker said: the universe “won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try and enjoy ourselves while we’re here.” I’ll bet it’s what they say at Sunday Assembly too.

The “spirit” in spirituality, for those of like mind, means the living breath of finite natural existence. Super-nature is not required, though the tolerant Sunday Assemblers “don’t do supernatural but won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.” The philosophers will take care of that.

6:30/6:46, 36/47/29, 4:30

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Take me to church

December 6, 2016
At last April’s Lyceum after-party I met a board member from Nashville’s Sunday Assembly. Learning that I teach courses on Atheism and Happiness at MTSU, she invited me to come and speak to them in December. This coming Sunday at 10 am, at Scarritt-Bennett
Image result for scarritt bennett

Where to begin? With William James, naturally. “If we were to ask the question: ‘What is human life’s chief concern?’ one of the answers we should receive would be: ‘It is happiness.’ How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.”

Then to Bertrand Russell, author in 1903 of “A Free Man’s Worship” and in 1930 of Conquest of Happiness. The former reflects an early Platonic phase, happily transcended in time, but both are concerned with how to accept godlessness in a finite and indifferent cosmos. The former was later described by Russell as written for unhappy people, a young author’s sermonizing attempt to buoy the spirit against tides of unhappy despair. The latter is a mature author’s lighter report on what he’s learned about living well, a call to all to “conquer” happiness based on his own life experience.

Godless people are often assumed, by believers, to be unhappy. It isn’t so. The literary critic James Wood recalls the godless “life-loving heroes” of his adolescence as providing “reasons to be cheerful.”

There was plenty of happiness in our household, but it was rarely religious happiness. The self was viewed with suspicion, as if it were a mob of appetites and hedonism. As an adolescent, I was often told that “self, self, self is all you think about,” and that “selfishness is your whole philosophy.” Life was understood to be constant moral work, a job that could never really be “done,” because the ideal was Jesus’ unsurpassable perfection. My mother and I quarrelled over the corpse of my religious faith. She told me that at night she prayed I would “come back into the fold.” As a young man, I lined up my pagan, life-loving heroes—Nietzsche, Camus, D. H. Lawrence, Keith Moon, Ian Dury—in glorious defensive formation: reasons to be cheerful. “Lessons From My Mother

So that’s going to be my message on Sunday: secular folk have plenty of reasons to be cheerful, plenty of historical allies, and plenty of proven strategies for living good, honorable, meaningful, constructive, happy lives. Believe me.

7 am/6:46, 57/33, 4:30

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Elasticity

December 5, 2016

That’s the theme of Ron Padgett’s poem “Think and Do”: the capacity of thinkers to get up from their pedestals and move, for which all pragmatic peripatetics – not “frozen in postures of thought, like Rodin’s statue, the one outside Philosophy Hall at Columbia” – are duly grateful.

…His accomplish-
ments are muscular. How could a guy with such big muscles be/thinking so much? It gives you the idea that he’s worked all his/life to get those muscles, and now he has no use for them. It/makes him pensive, sober, even depressed sometimes, and/because his range of motion is nil, he cannot leap down from/the pedestal and attend classes in Philosophy Hall. I am so/lucky to be elastic! I am so happy to be able to think of the/word elastic…

Happy and lucky because words provoke thoughts which lead to actions and something to think about. It’s the cycle of life.

5:30/6:45, 44/47, 4:30

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Anthropophilia

November 29, 2016

It’s our last Environmental Ethics class today. Our anchoring theme has been hope. How’s that working out for us?

The elephant in the room is, of course, the impending presidential defenestration. Responsible environmental administration is about to be tossed from the tower. A climate science denier will head EPA – or decapitate it. Drumpf’s understanding of earth science, by analogy to golf links, would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling

On the other hand, he’s said he’ll “look at” climate change. Our best hope for the new administration is that he’ll see something threatening to his unblinded and unsequestered business interests and be moved by narrow self-regard to do some of the right things. Climate facts, and facts in general, may not motivate him, but dollar signs and his personal popularity always have.

He’s said the bottom line is what addressing climate change will “cost our companies.” It’ll cost them their market, aka the planet. Surely even he can be made to see that, and to see the ignominy in being remembered to history as the inept politician whose short-sightedness cost us our last chance to preserve and protect the earth for acceptable human habitation.

Our better hope resides not in the Oval Office but with the rest of the world, and finally within each of us. Look to Berlin and Copenhagen, not Washington, for direction and hope. California won’t be leaving the union any time soon, but will have every opportunity to lead it away from the precipice. “When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills.”

Naomi Klein told us that the climate crisis, bound up with crises of economics and of the human spirit, would “change everything” and usher in a hopeful new era. We just have to hope that happens soon. We’ve wondered what unexpected developments would trigger a widespread recognition that we’d reached a tipping point on climate. This election, maybe?

Tim Flannery gave us lots of cold hard climate facts, but then concluded with a warm hug of hope for the next generation’s resourcefulness and resolve. Hope he’s right too.

Chick Callenbach left us a hopeful vision of a better world, filling in a few details as to how we might reach it. But more importantly, he left us a letter. His epistle to the ecotopians, to us really, admits “decay” and urges us to embrace it as the paradoxical but prudent composted condition of hope. It’s possible that a more enlightened leadership, by the winner of the popular vote, might have lulled us into compromised complacency. Now, that’s no option.  We’re going to have to fight. Bring on the eco-war games.

We’re well into this Anthropocene era of potentially catastrophic human impacts on the interdependent web of ecosystemic balance it’s taken epochs to strike. Could it possibly be a good era, a good Anthropocene?

Andrew Revkin notes “the uniquely consequential nature of this moment,” as we’re blessed or cursed with an opportunity to change the game or lose it. Perhaps we are smack in the middle of a huge “transition from the lesser Anthropocene to the greater Anthropocene” and will be seen, in a century or so, as the Greatest Generation. That’s hoping against hope.

Reflecting on all that has passed and is to come, I see the prospect of slow but substantial and productive shifts in the human enterprise. They will come along with a rich array of perceptions and responses among and within communities—from the scale of global society to that of the stratigraphic community.

Will this happen fast enough? Who knows. But this is the human way. A big part of engaging with the anthropocene, to my eye, is engaging with and even embracing ourselves as individuals and as a flawed and variegated yet amazing species. In 2003, biologists identified “response diversity” as a source of resilience in ecosystems. I’d assert that the same characteristic is an asset in societies as long as they work to level playing fields, foster education and transparency—and communicate.

Perhaps the last thing the world needs is another word. But in 2011, I offered a name for that kind of engagement. It might make you chuckle, given my earlier effort at naming something, but here goes. Anthropophilia.

Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia was a powerful look outward at the characteristics of the natural world that we inherently cherish. Now we need a dose of what I’ve taken to calling anthropophilia as well. We have to accept ourselves, flaws and all, in order to move beyond what has been something of an unconscious, species-scale pubescent growth spurt enabled by fossil fuels in place of testosterone. In The World without Us, Alan Weisman created a haunting, best-selling, thought experiment—imagining a planet awakening after the vanishing of its human tormentor. The challenge: There is a real experiment well under way, and we’re all in the test tube.

We’re stuck with the story of The World with Us. It’s time to grasp that uncomfortable, but ultimately hopeful, idea.

Is that a hopeful enough ending?

But as I always like to ask, rhetorically, when semesters end: what has concluded, that we may conclude? Be calm. Carry on. Get up each day and ask that morning question.

It’s gonna be okay.

5 am/6:39, 50/72, 4:31

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