Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Waking from our long national nightmare

August 9, 2018

Let’s do it again.

On this day in 1974, Richard Nixon officially resigned from the presidency. At 11:35 a.m., his resignation letter was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Gerald Ford took the oath of office. Then, at 12:05 p.m., Gerald Ford gave his first speech as president of the United States. He was the only president in U.S. history who was never elected president or vice president.

In his inaugural address, Gerald Ford said: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.”

WA Aug 9

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Scopes Trial 2018

July 24, 2018


July 17, 2018

To delete unwanted “tags”-append /wp-admin to URL, select tags under “tools” & delete all (eg PPC, SEO, digital marketing)


July 10, 2018

Back from Montreal, where we arrived just in time for Canada Day on July 1. I first visited here half a century ago, for Expo 67. Buckminster Fuller’s dome seemed bigger then.

Image result for expo 67
It’s still a cosmopolitan place, full of bikes and parks and wonderful food. We loved the Fine Arts and Archaeological Museums, and (despite scorching record heat) the botanical gardens. 

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Why Baseball Matters

May 22, 2018

Just finished one of the smartest books on baseball I’ve come across in a long time, or maybe even ever: Why Baseball Matters, by Susan Jacoby.

She is indeed the Susan Jacoby, of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularismsuch a hit this past semester in our Atheism course. Add another name to the Church of Baseball register.

Her point in this book is not simply to praise our favorite game but to raise a red flag of concern for its future, in an age that rewards inattention and distraction and discourages continuous (though relaxed) concentration. She understands how true baseball appreciation requires sustained focus, a willingness to notice how much is happening both on the playing field and in the annals of institutional memory when casual semi-observers are sure “nothing is happening” in the game unfolding before them.

My concerns about the future of baseball—a $10 billion sport enjoying an unprecedented era of financial success and labor peace-are not based on misplaced nostalgia for a “pure” game that never existed. They are based on the dissonance between a game that demands and depends on concentration, time, and memory and a twenty-first-century culture that routinely disrupts all three with its vast menu of digital distractions.

Just look around, the next time you’re in a ballpark: how many spectators are actually watching the game? How many are instead texting, watching other games in other places via smartphone, playing video games on that same dumb “smart” device? If you’re in my town, Nashville, how many are playing shuffleboard or engaging in some other irrelevant diversion in the right field grandstand, backs turned constantly to the field? How many are seated, watching the game while conversing with family and friends? How many people under 30 are even there at all?

It’s depressing, but Jacoby’s a meliorist with constructive suggestions for how the great pastime can reclaim its rightful place. Most important is for those of us who love it to “make an effort to show the young why we love the game and why they might love it too if they surrendered themselves, as an experiment, to time uninterrupted by clocks and clicks… One kid at a time, one adult at a time.”

So for my part, I’ll continue to track participation in my classes with a baseball scorecard. Least I can do.

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All mean egotism vanishes

May 18, 2018

May’s already more than half gone? How time flies when your family’s expanding!

We met Pita and Nell at the Nashville Humane Association on May 1. The place was closed on May 2. We were there waiting for the doors to open on May 3. It’s been a blur ever since, they’re the highest-energy canines I’ve ever been around. But life feels right again. Life is just better with dogs.

Better and busier, and disruptive of my old early-morning writing routine. But among the many lessons I’ve learned from dogs is flexibility and resilience, in the face of loss, disappointment, or just change. A change would do you good, as we heard Jeff Trott sing last night at a terrific Bluebird-style benefit show. (He wrote that Sheryl Crow hit, along with Soak Up the Sun, If It Makes You Happy, and lots more.) Fun night!
Did somebody say resilience? That’s just another word for returning to life, bouncing back, making a new plan, getting on with it, and maybe sometimes changing your mind.
I’m in the middle of Michael Pollan’s remarkable new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Toying in chapter four with the notion that mind-altering organic compounds might actually trigger noetic experiences with a profound spiritual dimension, but uneasy about “spirituality” that’s not been disentangled from discreditable supernaturalism, he quotes Emerson’s famously strange line:

Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into
infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.

And then Pollan speculates that genuine spirituality just may be that condition of egolessness, the transparency of vision without an overbearing sense of subjective selfhood, however arrived at. I’m with him on that. I’ve stood on the bare ground of transparency myself, not catalyzed by mushrooms or acid or toad venom (!) but by the footsteps that carry me away from all mean egotism.

I’m always carried by my own footsteps, for sure, but am happily accompanied again now by my four-footed companions’ pawsteps as well. We three don’t need psychedelics to change our minds.

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Wittgenstein, Arendt, Rawls, Turing, Searle, Singer

April 19, 2018

It’s our penultimate semester class date, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, Alan Turing, John Searle, and Peter Singer today in CoPhi.

In the last chapter of Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen calls out the right-wing pundits who’ve “effectively trained two generations of Americans to disbelieve facts at odds with their opinions.” We’re all liable to that, to a degree, and the only corrective is the one J.S. Mill celebrated in On Liberty: unfettered free expression, and unimpeded receptivity to it. Giving the devil his due: Trump understood that a “breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts represented not a hazard but an opportunity.” 
When your base discounts facts and truth you can get away with saying to them things like: “Don’t even think about it. Don’t even think about it Don’t even think about it…” Don’t worry, they won’t.

Philosopher Michael Lynch says repeated self-contradiction by politicians like Trump can dull our sensitivity to the value of truth itself.” That’s what James Comey told George Stephanopoulos.

What’s the good news? “America may now be at peak Fantasyland. We can hope.” Some can pray. Hope we have a prayer.

In A&P, Nature’s God concludes with “The Religion of Freedom.” Matthew Stewart notes the widely accepted view that the Enlightenment overestimated our capacity for reason. Steven Pinker has been rediscovering the currency of that view, as critics rebuke his call for Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. The estimable and enlightened Sarah Bakewell does not join the anti-Enlightenment backlash. 

Bertrand Russell once pointed out that maintaining a sense of hope can be hard work. In the closing pages of his autobiography, with its account of his many activist years, he wrote: “To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” Steven Pinker’s book is full of vigor and vim, and it sets out to inspire a similar energy in its readers.

He cites one study of “negativity bias” that says a critic who pans a book “is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it.” I will just have to take that risk: “Enlightenment Now” strikes me as an excellent book, lucidly written, timely, rich in data and eloquent in its championing of a rational humanism that is — it turns out — really quite cool. nyt

I’m with her, and him, and him.

Has a strictly empirical approach to religion ever been attempted? Dan Dennett made a start, with Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon. In its best passages, those most committed to finding a common thread of shared human nature behind all the various forms of religious enthusiasm, James’s Varieties did too.

Bruno, we’re reminded, shared with Spinoza an appreciation of parables and prophecies as appropriate vehicles for “approximating the truth for those who lack the capacity to understand it properly.” Locke, similarly, said scripture is instruction “for the illiterate bulk of Mankind.” Is that unacceptably condescending?

On the other hand: is it naive to say with Spinoza that “even the common people can be made to understand” that the right beliefs aren’t sufficient for salvation? 
Popular deism deviated from philosophical deism. Did it do a distortion by soft-pedaling the full freethinking implications of its progenitor? Is that just a necessary occupational hazard philosophers must court, if they agree with John Toland that “we must talk with the people, and think with the philosophers”? Can we not talk thoughtfully and honestly with the people?

Did John Adams really anticipate John Lennon? “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!” Imagine! But, hell no. “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”

Spinoza anticipated Jefferson (who started snipping his Bible in 1805, while in his 1st term in the White House) in thinking that what made Jesus great was his moral teachings (and not his magic). Lord Bolingbroke, though, said Seneca and Epictetus were better teachers than Christ.

Wittgenstein was one odd duck. Or rabbit. Or duckrabbit. What do you see, and how do you see it? Why do you see it that way? He thought these were questions worth investigating, in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations. I’m more inclined to follow the instruction of proposition 7 in his pre-humous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Famous premature last words.

“Raised in a prominent Viennese family, Ludwig Wittgenstein studied engineering in Germany and England, but became interested in the foundations of mathematics and pursued philosophical studies with Moore at Cambridge before entering the Austrian army during World War I. The notebooks he kept as a soldier became the basis for his Tractatus, which later earned him a doctorate and exerted a lasting influence on the philosophers of the Vienna circle. After giving away his inherited fortune, working as a village schoolteacher in Austria, and designing his sister’s Vienna home, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, where he developed a new conception of the philosophical task. His impassioned teaching during this period influenced a new generation of philosophers…”

The Tractatus said we can’t speak meaningfully about our most important questions in ethics and religion (and maybe language), and so should hold our tongues. That may sound like Freddy Ayer’s “nonsense,” but Wittgenstein was not being dismissive, he was courting mysticism. He presumed that language fails to mirror reality because we cannot verify their correspondence, cannot faithfully and flawlessly replicate in words the facts and meanings that lie beyond them.

The Philosophical Investigations takes a linguistic turn. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” not its relation to something non-linguistic in the world. The uses of words are discovered and decreed in our “language games,” which include but crucially are not limited to the games philosophers play about truth. Those games can get us stuck like a fly in a bottle, and he wanted to pop the cork. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

How do you avoid linguistic captivity in the first place? Not by inventing your own private language. Language is intrinsically public, and only other users of our language can call us out for the language errors we don’t catch. A private language is too much like Leibniz’ private monadic theaters of mind, too much like a game of solitaire played with improvised rules.

But rules presuppose other rule-followers, and language games presuppose other players. So the question is how do we break the spell of language, when it bewitches and confuses us? It’s tempting to say “it’s only a game,” we can always play a different one. Can we? “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Won’t language always hold us captive in this sense?

The Investigations thus seem to bring Wittgenstein full circle, back to the concluding counsel of the Tractatus. “So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.” I know what he means, I often feel that way when doing philosophy, and especially when watching others do philosophy. But now and then someone will say or write something that provokes an “ah-ha!” moment, and language seems less captor than liberator. Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had that effect on many of my peers in grad school, with its proposal that the pictures holding us captive in philosophy are optional. We can just decide to give up the picture of words as mirrors? That’s a game-changer.

“Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” And vice versa. Peripatetics know this. You aren’t necessarily lost, in language, you’re exploring. Try another path. Start another conversation. Read another book. Write another sentence.
Hannah Arendt covered Adolf Eichmann’s war crimes trial for The New Yorker in 1963 (“Eichmann in Jerusalem“), finding him the very epitome of banality, “an ordinary man who chose not to think too hard about what he was doing.” The banality of evil resides in the hearts and minds of heartless, thoughtless functionaries. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” And they pay that “normality” forward, to catastrophic and tragic result. “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism has suddenly again become must-reading. “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them…. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists… one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

John Rawls, Alan Turing, John Searle (who’s lately joined an ignoble list of alleged philosopher/harassers, but that’s another topic), and Peter Singer round out our introductory tour of western philosophy.

Rawls’ “stroke of genius” was his Original Position thought experiment, seeking fairness and justice (for Rawls justice is fairness) via the imaginative contrivance of a “veil of ignorance.” The idea is to acknowledge and lessen the undue influence of special interest pleading in our politics, allowing only those inequalities of wealth, status, privilege, opportunity, and resources that benefit all. The least well-off must be better off, when the veil is lifted, than otherwise. [SoL video]

Alan Turing’s Imitation Game, “proposing the practical test of whether or not we would attribute intelligence to a system whose performance is indistinguishible from that of a human agent,” says if it walks and talks like a smart duck it practically is one. John Searle countered with the Chinese Room, which “purports to show that even effective computer simulations do not embody genuine intelligence, since rule-governed processes need not rely upon understanding by those who perform them.”

But some philosophers remain convinced that we might someday use computers to achieve virtual immortality. That didn’t work out so well for Johnny Depp in Transcendence. “I can’t feel anything,” says the uploaded semblance of his former self. If that’s the singularity I hope it’s nowhere near, Ray Kurzweil. “Transcending biology” might strip us of our humanity and not replace it with anything better.

Peter Singer says we should always be prepared to sacrifice “one or two of the luxuries that we don’t really need” to help strangers. When you put it that way it doesn’t really sound like “a hard philosophy to live up to,” much as we love our branded shoes and suits, our cars and college funds, and our carnivorous ways. “But that doesn’t mean Singer is wrong about what we ought to do.” We ought to do a great deal more good for those in need than we do, most of us. Maybe we ought to stop eating sentient animals. Certainly we ought to stop inflicting gratuitous pain on all who can feel it. We ought to be less selfish and more cooperative.

Singer “represents the very best tradition in philosophy,” if you agree that “constantly challenging widely held assumptions” like Socrates is the very best tradition. Kwame Anthony Appiah basically agrees, but would modify Singer’s principle to something like: “if you are the best person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won’t cost you much to do so, do it.” [Singer slides]

Since it’s our last regular class date prior to next week’s exam, this is a good time to echo what Professor James said about conclusions. In the words of his favorite pluralistic mystic, “there is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!”

Actually there is one important bit of advice all philosophers will endorse:

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. #Einstein

And then there’s some good advice about how to prepare for an exam.

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Russell, Ayer, Existentialism…

April 17, 2018

Today in CoPhi we begin with a closer look at the quotable Bertrand Russell, whose historical opinions we’ve been noting all semester. But we’ve outrun his his 1945 History, which gives generous but unsympathetic late chapters to William James (“almost universally beloved”) and John Dewey (“leading living philosopher in America”) before concluding with a few cursory words on the logical analysis of Cantor and Frege. He says nothing of the Existentialists or then-young A.J. Ayer. More on them below…*

In Fantasyland, “Disneyfication” is not a term of praise, but an acknowledgement that parts of urban America increasingly resemble theme parks – to the delight of kids of all ages.  Even Kurt Andersen admits to being “delighted to live on a Brooklyn block that looks very much like it did a hundred years ago.” Better a little historical fantasy than the bulldozing of history that has always been the pattern of the New World.

But still, isn’t there something unseemly about the Peter-Panification of America that’s reflected in so many childless adults crowding the theme parks? It’d be nice if they’d at least find somebody else’s 9-year old to bring along, there are too many real children whose parents can’t afford the admission.

Adults are getting mentally younger and more childlike and children are inheriting wealth and power. Mark Zuckerberg, like so many Internet entrepreneurs, became a billionaire at just 23. Is it any surprise that he, and they, haven’t always thought carefully through all the troublesome implications of their moneymakers for people’s privacy and security? Of course they wished it wouldn’t be so. But “the tendency to believe that wish makes it so” is magical thinking. Hey, let’s go to Disneyland!
In A&P, we’re reminded that the honorific status of “democratic” is a relatively new development in human history. Vox populi may not be the will of god after all, though we may be tempted to blame present arrangements on forces beyond our control. (Did you see Comey Sunday night?) A measure of stoicism is defnintely in order, but I prefer to leaven mine with pragmatism. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept,” says the noble warrior chief on the postcard from my sister. Stoic Pragmatists like that, so long as it’s qualified with a short but crucial additional phrase: “…that I can change.” 
“Liberal” is another term lately downgraded by popular opprobrium and misconception. Liberalism is finally just the view that power and freedom, properly appropriated, come from the same fount of rational understanding that recognizes natural equality as our birthright and ruling touchstone. We’re all “furnished with like Faculties,” said Locke, “equal and independent.”
Enlightenment was such a revolutionary force in human history, says Stewart, because liberal democrats insisted on giving reasons for apportioning and lending the people’s sovereign power to its temporary custodial caretakers. Power requires explanation, it is not self-justifying.

John Adams scornfully derided Thomas Young’s incipient democratic party and its righteous populist zeal, and then confronted Thomas Paine for his impious “Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large.” Paine proposed to crush crown and clerisy alike, ceremonially and substantively, “in order to demonstrate that in America THE LAW IS KING.”

Deists’ laws derive from nature, but do not impose moralistic strictures against private personal conduct of the sort we’re accustomed to receiving from the fundamentally religious. The dictates of reason are not dictatorial, they’re prudential advisories that don’t have to be imposed on rational and virtuous liberals.

Similarly, Spinoza’s state of nature is “an ongoing perspective on all social experience” and not a fear-inducing invitation to the exchange of freedom for security at the hands of an authoritarian state. “A civil state that accurately represents the state of nature… in which a people is able to realize itself according to reason” is an Empire of Reason, one which “all good and wise men” would exert themselves. 

Let’s hope our empire strikes back soon, against the lately-ascendant forces of corruption, ignorance, and intolerance. Let’s hope the American experiment in democracy will not soon be abandoned by we the people.

*Russell’s youthful encounter with J.S. Mill led him to a pivotal liberating insight.

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day at the age of eighteen I read Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. Why I Am Not a Christian

We should resolve, he decided, “to understand the actual world as it is, not as we should wish it to be… Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Mature wisdom then comes when we apply ourselves to building on that understanding, and seeing if we can either construct steps to reach our castles in the sky (in Thoreau’s metaphor) or build new castles where we stand. Why else was old Russell in the streets protesting nuclear proliferatrion and Vietnam?

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it… The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty…” That’s the state of mind that best stimulates curiosity and creativity, and opens us to consider new possibilities. “Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom.”

Russell also said “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” And, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” And, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so… It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Russell’s china teapot is one of his more improbable enduring images. “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion…” You can probably guess where he’s going with that teapot.

Russell’s paradoxical barber, fascinated with language and its self-referential confusions, was less obviously engaged in constructive world-making. But he inspired A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists, convinced that progress in philosophy and in life required the dismantling of philosophy’s unverifiable traditional ambitions as so much literal nonsense. Language, Truth and Logic was a young man’s book. Old Ayer had to nearly choke to death on his salmon to acquire mature wisdom. He also courted a near death experience with the ear-nibbling prizefighter Mike Tyson. (“Wickedest Man in Oxford“)

The Existentialists, rallying under Jean Paul Sartre‘s anti-essentialist banner, warned against “bad faith” but didn’t explain precisely how people who love their work – philosophers included – can avoid being defined or inauthenticated by it. Sartre’s advice to the student who didn’t know whether to join the Resistance, to just choose, was frustrating. But he’d say that’s life.

Simone de Beauvoir was a bit more helpful. She said women are made, not born, but have been too accepting of the constructed gender constraints imposed by men. “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” They can make a different plan. The present generation is testing the limits of reconstruction, as women and men explore the possibilities of self-discovery. We can all learn to persist and persevere against arbitrary silencing and suppression. “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” So, is it existentially inauthentic to hire a housekeeper? I can’t imagine my wife happy without her.

Albert Camus said there’s no final escape from the absurdities of life, but we can learn to live with them. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. Camus and his generation successfully pushed back against the rock that was the Reich. He was awarded a Nobel. And then he died behind the wheel.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” I don’t agree, but if he felt that way why did he search for happiness and meaning? Or maybe it just came to him. “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion were absurd, but they too persisted and learned something from Sartre about the roads to freedom. “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company… Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk… Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning… Freedom is what we do with what is done to us… We are our choices… Hell is—other people!”

Best accessible recent account of Existentialism: At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. “Paris, near the turn of 1933. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. Pointing to his drink, he says, ‘You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!'”

And so we’ll ask: Have you ever read a book that changed your mind about something important to you? What would you say to Bertrand Russell and J.S. Mill about the First Cause Argument? Are linguistic paradoxes a deep philosophical/conceptual problem, or an amusing quirk of language reflecting our freedom of expression and self-discovery? Can you give an example of an unverifiable statement that you consider meaningful? If biology and the social sciences don’t shed light on a shared species essence, what is the status of our common genetic and memetic inheritance? Can you construct a personal essence, it that’s always subject to deconstruction and replacement? Could that be our essence? Where is gender headed, in this and coming generations? What’s your Sisyphean rock?
Should laptops be banned from the classroom?

“… students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture. Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.

The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer’s words flowed right to the students’ typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing….”
Cosmopolitans like Kwame Anthony Appiah push against the rock of nationalist chauvinism, and push for greater human solidarity. Anthony Appiah pushes alongside Adam Smith, the old free marketeer who insisted on recognizing what he called “reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct” as our greatest source of conscience. Like his friend David Hume, he found wisdom in thinking about his little finger. Hume’s lexicon was different, in A Treatise of Human Nature, but the enlightened Scots agreed: we have it in ourselves to become more generous and less selfish. “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” but it is definitely contrary to our better sentiments and sympathies, and contrary to our humanity.

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Pierce & James, Nietzsche, Freud

April 12, 2018

Long day ahead: four classes, a couple of consultations, and the first of two MALA classes on “Cheating Truth” (as previously rehearsed in November). Look out, “opinion-y facts,” we’re about to call Bullshit.

Today in CoPhi it’s the American Pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James (and John Dewey, R.I.P., and George Santayana, both neglected by Nigel), the godless post-nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the psychoanalytic therapeutics of Sigmund Freud.

In Fantasyland, Andersen says  “most mass killers in America are not psychotics or paranoid schizophrenics,  they’re role-playing fantasists “motivated by our besetting national dream of overnight fame… they’re citizens of Fantasyland, unhappy people with flaws and failures they blame on others,” they want to “force the rest of us to pay attention to them for the first time.” Thanks to the NRA’s “demented,” hysterical, reactionary opposition to the ’90s assault weapons ban, the killer fantasists have a powerful lobby working on their behalf.

Less violent (so far) but no less unsettling to Andersen (“it gives me the heebie-jeebies”) is the prospect of “augmented reality” now being funded in Silicon Valley to the tune of $1.4 billion. These new VR technologies promise to be “ridiculous, sublime, wonderful, [and] awful.” He can’t wait.

In A&P, it’s the purfuit of happiness chapter. Despite the widely-shared and unexamined false assumption, then and now, that freethinkers must be bad people, the freethinking deists who founded our republic were convinced that virtue (which includes but is not restricted to moral goodness) and happiness are twins. They did not affirm the common conception of morality that finds nihilistic disenchantment and valueless-ness in the radical philosophy of Nature’s God. Their “immanent” alternative saw nihilism a symptom, not a cause, of otherworldly/supernatural religion.

Jefferson declared himself an Epicurean. Locke was always cagier, but “it is in fact difficult to sound more Epicurean than Locke” when he said we all seek happiness, “which consists in the enjoyment of pleasure.” They would seem to have agreed that the summum bonum is “indolence of body, tranquility of mind,” that Happiness founded on virtue and measured by [social] utility is life’s great aim. There’s nothing “thoughtless, selfish,” amorally consumerist or materialistic about that. Or self-indulgent, or narcissistic (though it is a major theme of this chapter that a kind of self-love is at the heart of social conscience and public-spiritedness).

Stewart says the radical philosophy is not properly or exclusively a humanism, but is closer to naturalism. We should talk about that, both stand on the same side of my scale. Somebody needs to write that essay, in echo of Sartre: Naturalism is a Humanism.

Spinoza, Hume, Machiavelli, and others have charged that Christianity’s concern for otherworldly salvation “results in a selfish and bigoted diminishment of virtue.” Fair?

Jefferson famously wrestled with his conscience while consorting with a married Frenchwoman, in the form of a dialogue between Head and Heart. Stewart says it’s also a debate between deism (Heart) and stoicism (Head). Neither side scores a solid win, the happy and virtuous result is a draw. 

Franklin applauded the dual triumph of happiness and virtue. Stewart summarizes, perhaps startlingly: “if vice turned out to be a condition of happiness, then presumably God would clamor to see us vicious.” Hmm. That’s a bit jarring to the “peace of mind” that Spinoza said should result from good actions. Better return to Hume’s elegant summary: “Probity and honour were no strangers to Epicurus and his sect,” which was of course precursor to Franklin’s “virtuous hereticks.”

Image result for william james squirrel

Back to Pragmatism, and William James: we begin with a squirrel, whose circumnavigation of a tree was the improbable occasion for James’s account of the pragmatic method. (That’s the view from his summer place in New Hampshire atop my masthead, btw.) His camping companions couldn’t decide whether a scampering, circling squirrel was itself circled by the human observers who tried and failed to keep the frenetic rodent constantly in their sights or not.

…Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.” Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute. What Pragmatism MeansA silly and trivial dispute, perhaps, but helpfully illustrative of how pragmatists think. Define your terms, say what practical difference the competing answers would make, and get on with more pressing concerns. It all depends on “why you want to know and what difference it will actually make,” if any. If none, forget about it.

Another way to illustrate the method: what’s your current velocity, right now?

Charles Peirce, not related to Benjamin Franklin Pierce, said the final truth is what we would end up with if we could run all the experiments and investigations we’d like to. We’ll never run them all, so the truth at any given time is always provisional, always tied to the present state of inquiry and always subject to revision or rejection in the light of further experience.

Bertrand Russell didn’t think much of this approach, and didn’t make much of an effort to grasp its intent. Pragmatists are often accused of denying the facts, when they explicitly acknowledge facts but propose that we understand truth (or falsehood) about the facts as what we say about them but never, in media res, entirely convergent with them. What we say is subject to the present stage of inquiry, the inconclusiveness of which requires an admission that what we would say at the ideal end of inquiry will surely differ. Hence the perpetual gap between facts and truths, and the pragmatists’ commitment to narrowing the gap in the long run while resisting unwarranted absolute claims in the interim.

So it’s not true, contrary to Russell’s derisive criticism, that pragmatists have to admit the truth of Santa’s existence. It may “work” for a four-year-old to think so, but toddlers don’t get the last word.

This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty‘s neo-pragmatic and (later) Wittgensteinian invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth. Rorty said words are our tools and not symbolic snapshots corresponding to timeless propositional statements. Our task is to “cope” with the world, not just copy it.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.

Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters and correspondence, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.

James’s interest in religion was rooted in the lives and experience of individuals, not particularly in God, heaven, the afterlife and so on. He psychologizes and naturalizes religion. It’s mostly about life on earth, for Jamesians, not (again) old St. Nick.

Let me know if you’d like to buy a good bargain-priced book about him. About us all, really.

Friedrich Nietzsche said “God is dead” and seemed at turns dismayed and liberated to think so. Is a godless world one in which “everything is permitted” or one in which objective and authoritative permission is no longer available, in which the old rules have been mooted and “free spirits” are unleashed to create new rules for themselves? But is God dead, in Nietzsche’s terms? Maybe in old Europe, and maybe in more of the formerly sacred halls of worship in our own backyard than most of us will admit. Zarathustra may have come a century too soon in some quarters, and it may still be too soon in others, but it’s hard to deny that ours is an increasingly secular age. I don’t know many secularists who think everything is permitted.

Nor do I know many secularists who think compassion, kindness, and consideration are dead, dependent on a religious pedigree, or reflective of slavish resentment. That genealogy may explain the psychology behind some Christians’ worldview, but most people in my experience still want to be good for goodness’ sake. If your only motivation for being good, though, is to get to heaven, that’s not good. And it’s not goodness.

(We hosted a talk by a representative godless secular humanist who thinks you can be good without a god next Friday, at our annual Spring Lyceum: Ronald Aronson, author of Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.)

If an Ubermensch is “not held back by conventional moral codes,” he’d better be held back by law and communal disfavor. There are other, better names for people who “want to have their way without consideration of other people’s interests”: selfish egoists. Spoiled brats. NPDs. Mr. President. Not Superman.

Nietzsche’s un-Kantian exaltation of unreason found partial alliance with Sigmund Freud, but is also placed on the shrink’s couch as a classic textbook case of subterranean wish-fulfillment and unresolved, unconsious discontent with modernity. The Freudian Unconscious may not quite rise to the revolutionary status of Copernicus and Darwin, Frood may not have figured it all out, Deputy, but it would explain a lot. As “talking cures” go, though, I think I’d usually rather talk to a philosophical analyst than a psycho-…

Nietzsche himself was an early-adopter of psychoanalysis, and needed to be. He had a gift for his analyst, as documented in the film When Nietzsche Wept: eternal recurrence, the gift that keeps on giving. Or doesn’t. Its up to you to affirm or negate, to receive the gift as a great liberation or the greatest weight.

Freud’s reductive account of religion rivals Marx’s, and like Marx’s probably captures a significant but not comprehensive segment of believers. Much of Freud’s universe is unfalsifiable, as Sir Karl said, but it’s not hard to find a devout person who wants and finds more in religion than a protective paterfamilias in the sky. On the other hand, he wasn’t entirely off base when he said “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” And, “man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness-accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.”

?s Does it really “work” to believe in Santa? Didn’t you continue to receive presents after you stopped believing? Is believing in Santa analogous to believing in God? When James said truth is what works, did he mean what works for me, now? Or for us, on the whole and in the long run? Are words tools, or more like pictures? Is it possible that God is dead for some but not others, in some places and times more and in others less? Are compassion and kindness distinctively religious values? Do you know any kind and compassionate atheists? Should we embrace the irrational and emotional aspects of human nature, or try to overcome them? Is Freudian dream symbolism (snakes and caves etc.) profound or silly?

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Locke & Spinoza, “chalk and cheese”

March 29, 2018

Today in CoPhi, “chalk and cheese” as Matthew Stewart has it. “Locke and Spinoza are the chalk and cheese of the early Enlightenment, or so it has long been maintained. One was moderate in all things; the other a thoroughgoing radical. One was supposedly a devout follower of Jesus; the other was known in his own day as the ‘atheist Jew.'” But both had a huge impact on the enlightenment revolutionaries of our patimony. More on them below.*

Today in Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen says professors and college graduates ought to be important fighters defending reason but have instead become enablers of magical thinking. Case in point: Princeton-trained poli-scientist Jodi Dean, author of Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace and enthusiastic defender of “the veracity of people claiming to be not just (UFO) witnesses but abductees.”

It’s not just Higher Ed that’s the problem. The largest charter school operator in Texas, a company called Responsive Ed, issues textbooks presenting Genesis as a scientific theory and dismissing evolutionary biology as “dogma” and “unproved theory.” And that was before Betsy DeVoss.

Wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say about that. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Sure, neighbor, say what you want. But don’t compel young students to hear it in their science classrooms unless you want to turn out generations of blathering scientific illiterates. Oh. You do.
Today in A&P, we meet Epicurus’s dangerous idea, “a kind of universal acid [that] dissolves every pretension of religion… top represent the meaning of existence”: nature always explains itself. Or will, given time and literacy.

Thomas Hobbes said Epicureanism is truer than Aristotelianism, invested as it is in understanding nature’s causes but not positing prior purposes. “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” Einstein agreed, precisely because its causes are discoverable.

Is it better (“less remote from the truth”) to believe nothing than to believe what’s wrong? Jefferson the Epicurean thought so. That didn’t block him from facing the hard but (speaking for myself at least) consoling truth that death redistributes our vital matter and grants our continuation in “a thousand forms” – animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Epicurus tumbled to Darwin’s dangerous idea, approximately, that the complexity and diversity of life are due to natural selection and time, which “transforms the nature of the entire world.” Nothing stays the same. As Lucretius put it, the pressures of survival, not the decrees of a transcendent authority, are responsible for “the creation of better and more just arrangements of society.” May the pressures continue. They must.
Today in Bioethics, Eula Biss plays some more with the vampire theme and her recognition as both a new mother and a patient that “we feed off of each other, we need each other to live,” and that the whole mutual dependency framework of our lives is beautifully “aglow with humanity.”

One of the troubling and less lovely expressions of humanity is our tendency to panic in the face of unwarranted and unsubstantiated fears. Such was the “cascade of panic” triggered by Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study linking the MMR vaccine to autism. “Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford.”

Refusal of immunity “as a form of civil disobedience” is an opportunity of privilege – “a privileged 1% are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99%.” The refuseniks who think they’re striking a solid blow against inhumane capitalists, especially Big Pharma, are missing a vital point: shared immmunity “is a system in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population,” hardly standard operating procedure under capitalism. Opting out really looks more like buying in and supporting the status quo, which is to devalue or ignore appeals to ethical principle in favor of (as Susan Sontag said) “the calculus of self-interest and profitability.” What an impoverished state of mind and a shrunken state of heart.

And speaking of Dracula, one more time: “medicine sucks the blood out of people in a lot of ways.” So maybe Biss’s dad was right: “Most problems will get better if left alone.” Problems abound, though, if our reason for choosing to leave them alone is an absence of trust in medical practitioners.

*Spinoza didn’t make it easy on himself by affirming pantheism, but perhaps he found the solace of solidarity with nature and the universe sufficiently off-setting and worth the cost in personal terms. He thought he’d touched all the bases: God, nature, freedom, emotion, everything. QED(Not quite easily done.)

He “claimed to demonstrate both the necessary existence and the unitary nature of the unique, single substance that comprises all of reality. Spinoza preferred the designation “Deus sive Natura” (“god or nature”) as the most fitting name for this being, and he argued that its infinite attributes account for every feature of the universe.”

An infinite God leaves no remainder, but also leaves individuals without a personal savior. He didn’t think he needed one, with his rationalist’s intellectual love of God. Free will may be an illusion, but a Spinozism of freedom is supposed to free us from reactionary passions like anger and self-pity. He would have been pleased by Einstein’s endorsement. “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind…”

But, freedom? “It would be moral bondage if we were motivated only by causes of which we remain unaware, so genuine freedom comes only with knowledge of what it is that necessitates our actions. Recognizing the invariable influence of desire over our passionate natures, we then strive for the peace of mind that comes through an impartial attachment to reason.” Much easier said than done. But again, Spinoza wasn’t about easy.

Anthony Gottlieb’s Spinoza brought “a breeze of the future,” a foretaste of our present, with determinism and secularism in the ascendant in the most enlightenend quarters. Was he really “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers,” as Bertrand Russell averred? “Those who were acquainted with him,” said Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, called him “social, affable, honest, obliging, and of a well-ordered morality.” But they didn’t confirm his mythic identity as a humble lens grinder scrabbling to sustain himself for his philosophic labors. “[H]is lens-making was primarily a scientific pursuit rather than a commercial one.”

If we “understood clearly the whole order of Nature,” according to Spinoza, we’d come to his conclusion that “all things [are] just as necessary” as a true mathematical proposition. “Unfortunately, people did not come to see this at all.” Fortunately, I say, lest we stop trying to be the change we want to see in the world. He’d say not to sweat that, if we want change then we necessarily will do what we think we must to achieve it… but we can’t bank on making a difference that confounds the “whole order.” And I say, again, I’m banking on it.

This God-intoxicated man has many secular and atheistic intellectual descendants, who are tarred by “no stigma in economically developed countries except the United States.” Still, “he believed that he believed in God.” Maybe Einstein did too, Gottlieb’s judgment that he was “probably just being diplomatic” notwithstanding.

John Locke‘s empiricism overstated the blankness of our slates, and relied too heavily on memory as a guarantor of personal identity. Thomas Reid was not in his league, but may still have had a better idea with his overlapping memories thesis. Until we become cyborg, total recall will not be an option.

“Locke’s grand work,” said C.S. Peirce, “was substantially this: Men must think for themselves.”

Thomas Jefferson may have overstated the case for Locke’s influence on the founding generation of the American republic, but if he influenced the sage of Monticello it would seem to follow that in fact his shadow has loomed large. A direct line can be drawn from his social contract to John Rawls’s, and from there to the current generation of progressive politics in America… to say nothing of his namesake on Lost. The authority of a rulers derives from the freely-contracted consent of the governed, or from nowhere. It doesn’t come down from heaven nor out of the barrel of a gun.

Locke “greatly admired the achievements that his friends in the Royal Society had made in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he sought to clear the ground for future developments by providing a theory of knowledge compatible with such carefully-conducted study of nature. The goal of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was to establish epistemological foundations for the new science by examining the reliability, scope, and limitations of human knowledge in contrast with with the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere superstition. Since the sciences had already demonstrated their practical success, Locke tried to apply their Baconian methods to the pursuit of his own philosophical aims. In order to discover how the human understanding achieves knowledge, we must trace that knowledge to its origins in our experience.”

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding sounded the Enlightenment keynotes: think for yourself, question conventional and inherited wisdom, stop quibbling and splitting hairs about angels on pinheads (etc.)

Samuel Johnson‘s stone-kicking refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism is usually met with derision, but as a practical response I place it in the same category as Diogenes’ ambulatory refutation of Zeno’s paradoxes. Works for me.

Berkeley‘s idealistic immaterialism (“in which he employed strictly empiricist principles in defense of the view that only minds or spirits exist”) deserves some derision, though it also makes a perverse kind of sense if we don’t repudiate Locke’s representational realist assumption about ideas and their putative inferential sources. Better to repudiate, and admit that experience gives us the world – not just ideas of a world. But it gives us a world in need of elaboration and refinement, which was always the point of reflecting on experience in the first place.

Better also to repudiate the idea that being and perceiving are one. But, Berkeley’s Three Dialogoues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) is still an entertaining read. “Here Berkeley spoke through Philonous (“Mind-lover”), who tries to convince his reluctant friend Hylas (“Woody”) that it is only by rejecting the artificial philosophical concept of material substance that skepticism can be finally defeated and the truths of common-sense secured.”

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