Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“Socially available free time”

April 7, 2020

Today in A&P we’re up to Martin Hagglund’s penultimate chapter on Democratic Socialism, and a continuation of the call he issued in the previous chapter on “the value of our finite time,” for a “revaluation of value.” That’s a clever re-tooling of an old Nietzschean phrase that originally conveyed contempt for democratic and egalitarian values, but that here stands for their re-invigoration in a possible world of tomorrow that might truly value the time of all our lives.

The key to the critique of capitalism is the measure of wealth in terms of socially necessary labor time. In contrast, the overcoming of capitalism requires that we measure our wealth in terms of what I call socially available free time.

What a twist on that expression we’re living through right now! We have all kinds of “free time,” but so long as we’re following the lifesaving physical distancing guidelines the epidemiologists insist we must, we’re not available to socialize except through the proxy of communications technologies like Zoom.  We should be grateful, not for the distance but for the technologies that allow us to surmount it.

The technologies that could make us wealthier — that could give us more time to lead our lives — are instead employed to exploit human labor even when such labor is not needed. If we measured our wealth in terms of socially available free time, however, then machines would produce value for us by virtue of their own operations.

Remember what Thoreau said in Walden?  “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Hagglund’s analysis says the cost of capitalism has become prohibitive, has been extracting too much life for too little return. Time is money? No, time is worth a lot more than that. In the long run, this life is all we can count on.

Continuing in the present chapter, Hagglund says when we convert labor intensity devoted to ends and occupations that don’t really matter to us into socially available free time, we can “engage the question of what we should do with our lives and pursue the activities that matter to us.” And then we’ll be really rich. As matters now stand, we’re acquainted with the cost of things but not their true value.

How do we get there, from here? First we’ve got to defeat the killer virus, and learn the lessons our unpreparedness should be teaching us before the next one arrives.

Then we’ve got to ask ourselves, really ask, if we’ve done right by time and how we can and must do that with the time of our future lives.

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Berkeley, Voltaire & Leibniz, Hume & Rousseau; and finite time

April 2, 2020

Today in CoPhi it’s Berkeley, Voltaire & Leibniz, Hume, & Rousseau. LISTEN


The English poet Alexander Pope declared that “whatever is, is right.” The German polymath and Sufficient Reasoner Leibniz agreed. The French parodist Voltaire, whose sense of justice Pope’s and Leibniz’s view offended, wrote Candide to ridicule it. All is for the best?  This is the best possible world? Give us a break. Open your eyes. Look at Lisbon, 1755. And don’t just pontificate and theorize, do something for suffering humanity. Cultivate your garden. God (whom Voltaire the Deist accepted but did not depend on to fix what’s broken) won’t do it for you.

David Hume questioned everything, including biological perfection and intelligent design. He said we should resist to call miraculous even the most improbable natural events. As I like to say, he’d have had a quick answer to Al Michael’s famous call at the 1980 Olympics, “Do you believe in miracles?” Nope. There’s no law against beating the Soviet national hockey team, though of course it’s a marvelous achievement nonetheless. Same for most improbable medical recoveries. Same, if we survive the pandemic and the Trump administation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said we’re born free but everywhere are in figurative chains of constraining human law and civil authority, but can liberate ourselves by submitting to what’s best for the whole community. That’s the General Will, which strikes Rousseau’s critics as a dangerous blank check for authoritarians who purport to know the public interest better than the public knows itself. That’s not really setting the bar very high though, is it? And doesn’t J-J R have a point, that I don’t want to pay my taxes but the bigger part of me does, and knows that we must.

Bishop George Berkeley the idealist/immaterialist made lexicographer Samuel Johnson angry enough to kick a rock, but that did not effectively “refute” Berkeley’s claim that what we know of rocks and feet and pain in toes that impact rocks all exists on an ideal plane. It strikes most everybody nowadays as a ridiculous proposal, but it is more consistent with John Locke’s claim that our ideas mediate our world. To be is to be perceived? Well, maybe it’s to be perceivable. And maybe it’s enough that you and I are the potential percipients. Maybe the quad doesn’t depend on God. But maybe it and we do all depend on each other.


In A&P today  we consider “the value of our finite time” and a side of Karl Marx rarely acknowledged by his western critics, his commitment to individual freedom. “‘The free development of individualities’ is, says Martin Hagglund, the foundation for his critique of capitalism and religion.” That squares with young Marx’s interest in Epicurean philosophy, though not so much with Soviet Marxist ideology.
 

We’re often instructed to “do what you love,” but Hagglund’s realm of necessity/realm of freedom discussion raises the question of whether most people in a capitalist society like ours can ever realistically aspire to do the work they love, when leaving a job they despise is too fraught with the risk of destitution, unemployment, loss of health coverage, and so on.

And so, in the context of that question a book called Do the Work You Love — highlighted in an email from Tom Butler-Bowdon I just opened headlined “What to read in a time of loss and panic” — takes on particular relevance. If “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness,” and our system boxes too many of us us into settling for work we merely tolerate, are we (even those of us who do love our work) really “spiritually free”?

One of the reasons I like Hagglund’s book, as I’ve indicated, is his fondness for walking illustrations and metaphors. If I have to walk two hours a day to fetch water, I’m stuck in the realm of necessity. But “if I enjoy walking two hours a day as an intrinsic part of a fulfilling life, my activity is in the realm of freedom.” And so I do. The nectar is in the journey.  
It is a “fatal philosophical mistake” to conflate the quest for self-satisfaction with egoism, and thus to  subvert and deny our social nature. We then see cooperation and mutual support as possessing merely instrumental value and not something a rational person would naturally embrace. We won’t then see helping others, rather than always and only helping ourselves, as humane and normal. But helping one another through crisis, as people keep saying during this execrable pandemic, is precisely what we need to be doing — not because it gratifies the isolated ego, but because it expresses our deepest identity as social beings.
Marx argued that the core problem of capitalism is not a relative few greedhead monopolists, a few villainous malefactors of great wealth, but “the social form of capitalism itself.” If individual capitalists are greedy, blame them for their greediness, sure; but recognize the system as one which encourages and rewards greed.  That’s the change of perspective that can foment real reform or even, if we dare say it, revolution.

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Descartes, Montaigne, Pascal, and spiritual faith

March 31, 2020

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Another good reason to get up at dawn.

Today at Pandemic U., it’s Montaigne, Descartes (on his birthday), and Pascal in CoPhi, and Spiritual Freedom in A&P.

My short shtick: Descartes craved certainty, Montaigne repudiated it, and Pascal — though a brilliant mind and marvelous writer of thought (“pensees”) — was a bad gambler. The challenge of faith is not a coin-flip, the question of our origins and destiny doesn’t come down to a simple either/or between Christianity and Atheism.

I side for once with Charles Sanders Peirce, who said contrived doubts like Descartes’s of his own existence are not a proper starting-place in philosophy. And while Pascal’s statement that our problems are largely due to our inability to sit alone in a room has real resonance at this moment, I can’t relate to his fright at the silent immensity of the night sky. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” Really? It intrigues me, and fills me with wondrous curiosity. It elicits my support of SETI.

Montaigne remains for me the most compelling of that trio, I love that he fell off his horse and thus lost his fear of death. I love that he was a peripatetic. “My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” I love his fascinated fixation on life’s little details. And I love that he invented the personal essay as we know it. In a way he was, as Sarah Bakewell has noticed, the first blogger.

In A&P it’s “Natural and Spiritual Freedom” (LISTEN). Spiritual freedom, unlike its natural counterpart which we share with the rest of the animal kingdom, requires (says Martin Hagglund) “the ability to call into question, challenge, and transform our ends” — in other words, it requires philosophy, our primary tool of spiritual “self-maintenance.”

Speaking of the other animals, Hagglund’s discussion of natural and spiritual faith reminds me of Walt Whitman’s encomium to our less internally-conflicted cousins. 
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth
… Song of Myself

I’m reminded as well of George Santayana’s “animal faith,” which poses a nice counterpoint to both Cartesian methodological skepticism and Cartesian indubitability. “Without this faith there could be no rational approach to the necessary problem of understanding and surviving in this world.” g’r Someone should work out the connections between Hagglund’s and Santayana’s versions of qualified faith. Both strike me as varieties of naturalism and humanism I can believe (or have spiritual/animal faith) in.


The first natural feature of life that our commitment to self-maintenance implies is the inherent finitude of life. We “disintegrate and die” when the project of self-maintenance ends. Data and Picard know that, or will in their 24th century. “A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.” It’s the butterfly of the finite moment that symbolizes a happy, “blue skies” existence.

Plus, I’m with JL: I don’t necessarily want to live “forever,” but I’d take an extra (healthy) decade or two. “Engage!”

Spoiler warning: Picard gets a material upgrade at the end of his first season, but his body is still as fragile and finite as a healthy 94-year old can ever expect. Hagglund points out, “Even if the material we are made of were improved and made more durable, our bodies would still have to run the risk of breaking down and ending our lives.” That’s the risk we run as finite beings leading vulnerable lives. If COVID-19 is good for nothing else, it’s reminding us of that. To live a human life necessarily requires boldness and fortitude. That’s our continuing mission.

Finally, I love the walking metaphors Hagglund has sprinkled through his book. Just as a walker must project a spatial horizon, “anyone who is leading her life must project the temporal horizon of her death.” This is serious business, this leading of lives.

 “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” Godspeed (or its secular counterpart), Mr. Prine.

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Opening Day! (sorta) with Spinoza and Kierkegaard

March 26, 2020

Tuesday was virtual re-Opening Day for our school semester, today is virtual Opening Day for mlb. It’s not the same, it’s hardly a replacement, but we must find our silver linings where we can. I enjoyed tuning in to Game 7 of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win against the Indians yesterday, I’m looking forward to the “David Freese Game” of the 2011 Cards-Tigers World Series today. Retreating into the past has its pleasures too, when the future’s on hold.

Meanwhile, at Pandemic U., we’re doing Spinoza today (slightly out of order temporarily, for no better reason I guess than to give me a thin excuse to recycle that stale old “Descartes before the horse” joke) in CoPhi, and Kierkegaard in A&P. What an odd couple, a blissful fatalistic rationalist (the “Lens Grinder”) and an angst-ridden melancholy absurdist/irrationalist (the Faith Leaper).

Some of the best things Spinoza ever said:

  • “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.”
  • “I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.”
  • “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”

The best thing Kierkegaard ever said:

Image result for kierkegaard walking

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This crazy semester and “This Life”

March 24, 2020

LISTEN

We’re back.

My first-ever Spring Break/Cactus League holiday in Arizona was gloriously good for three days. Then it rained, they pulled the plug on Spring Training (and the NBA and all the other organized spectator sports), and Spring Break was extended to give my colleagues and me time to prepare for Pandemic University online. Oh Brave New World…
So I’ve posted a little video and encouraged students to take virtual co-responsibility for their education. It can work, if we’re all in. We’ll see.
In CoPhi there will have to be some trimming, we’re only up to Augustine and Boethius  et al. But we’ll not trim Camus and the Existentialists, they’re never more relevant than in times of crisis. And plague.
Nor will we trim American Philosophy: A Love Story, whose author John Kaag published his new William James book during our extended break. His fundamental message, to my taste better conveyed than by the Existentialists: life may be worth living, it’s our choice. 
Also just out during our break: Ann Druyan’s companion book to the newest rendition of Cosmos. It puts all this in perspective. “A world [this] tiny cannot possibly be the center of a cosmos of all that is, let alone the sole focus of its creator. The pale blue dot is a silent rebuke to the fundamentalist, the nationalist, the militarist, the polluter—to anyone who does not put above all other things the protection of our little planet and the life that it sustains in the vast cold darkness.”
In A&P we finally take up Martin Hagglund’s This Life, a robust defense of secular values and an impassioned plea for egalitarian politics. “To be religious is to regard our finitude as a lack,an illusion, or a fallen state of being,” he asserts. It might be, if there were any alternative. Infinitude is not on our menu. His audacious rejoinder: “Any life worth living must be finite and requires secular faith.” Full commitment to the secular life requires our fidelity, without which its object vanishes. It’s entirely on us. 
This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual FreedomHagglund draws a distinction, surprisingly due in part to C.S. Lewis, between eternal life and “living on” in this one (secular faith opts for the latter). Woody Allen, whose autobiography just came out, famously articulated a similar sentiment: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

Self-absorbed though that may sound, it’s also implicitly expressive of the central tenet of secular faith: that life is worth living. or (as Kaag’s James would have it) may be. “If I did not have faith that life is worth living, I would never be compelled to fight for the memory of the past or for a better future.” I’d be stranded in a meaningless pointless eternal present. I’d have effectively abolished time, not (in Charles Taylor’s phrase) simply “gathered” it. Secular faith regards time as irreducibly sacred.”The days are gods,” as Emerson the secular transcendentalist put it.

It’s entirely fortuitous that we’re doing Augustine in CoPhi on the same day that in A&P we encounter him  insisting on the inescapabiliy of secular faith — “the source of our passion for the world and our care for one another.” Is there really a greater passion, a deeper care? 

This Life is a revelation in many ways, including its insight into Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård‘s extensive, micro-attentive ruminations on quotidian banalities. It’s telling, to realize that Knausgaard’s determined quest for focus translates, in his native tongue, as attachment. Under his unblinking gaze “even dull experiences come alive with the sensory, perceptual, and reflective richness of being in the world.” We tend to exaggerate the exceptional and extraordinary, when in fact it’s the everyday that typically tethers us to our lives. “Setting the table, cleaning the house,” walking the dogs… it’s all as rich as we’re prepared to notice, when attending with a will to attachment.
Hagglund quotes Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights: “in heaven I should be extremely miserable.” Why? Because nothing there is ever really at risk or at stake. We humans require challenge and vulnerability to perceive value, it seems. Also, apparently, Ted Danson will be there.
A sharply drawn allegation, which I found useful to mention when I gave my little talk to the Honors College early last month (it seems so long ago, already), is Hagglund’s claim that having religious faith means believing that “what is truly valuable” can survive the destruction of earth and everything finite.” I said I looked forward to hearing the Dean’s perspective on that, he being a person of unconcealed faith. Guess we won’t be hearing that, not this semester in that forum. Seems like we’ve already lost much, to COVID-19, that would have been of great educational value.

But I do think people of religious faith, not just secularists, can think they take the climate crisis seriously. Can they unreservedly affirm, though, that  the fate of the earth is ultimately in our hands? Can any of us afford not to make that assumption, in these unsettled days? 

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Spring (almost)!

March 5, 2020
Image result for spring break 2020

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Stoics & Epicureans and Psychopaths

March 3, 2020

Back from chilly Chicago and the APA, where I shook Daniel Dennett’s hand and thanked him for his prompt email correspondence years ago (“I wouldn’t be so prompt today”). Martha Nussbaum and Philip Kitcher were other highlights, along with the James Society and SAAP sessions.

In CoPhi we begin catching up with the Stoics and Epicureans, for whom philosophy was always  much more than a profession. A colleague shared a note from an old student, expressing gratitude for the specific way philosophy (Plato in particular) may have saved a friend’s life. You do that, said my colleague’s correspondent. We all do that, my colleague generously deflected.

But honestly we don’t all go out of our way, we academic philosophers, to relate to our students in a human way – let alone to save a life). We’ve been trained to see ourselves as professional scholars and our vocation as one of technical proficiency.

It was much more than that to the ancient Hellenistic therapists. It was a way of life that understood and actively disarmed the existential torments and terrors that can make living just, as Mr. Prine said, a hard way to go.

The Epicureans remind us to recall how little we recall of life before birth, and of how much we therefore don’t have to fear, going forward. Relax, they said, think and talk it through with your friends, enjoy a simple life in the company of kindness. The gods aren’t gunning for us. Aταραξια (ataraxia) is available for the taking, if you’re willing to devote yourself to it. When your death comes you’ll not feel a thing. (Montaigne will re-learn this ancient lesson, after Spring Break.) Meanwhile, have some fun.

The Stoics were similarly about simplicity and natural living, if a bit more grim about it. Cicero also said don’t fret your mortality, though in his case there was talk of redemption in a hereafter. Seneca said life’s plenty long, for most of us, but we cut ourselves short with frivolity, distraction, and procrastination. Wouldn’t he have loved the Internet!

Are Stoics too cold-hearted and dispassionate? Are they Vulcans? Most self-styled Stoics of my acquaintance are, like Mr. Spock, at least half-human in this regard. Massimo Piggliucci, a contemporary stoic of some renown, says he’s hanging out his shingle. So for a fee you can find out just how helpfully human a stoic counselor can be.

Fantasyland today notes that America has spawned a particular suburban dream and an idea of idyll in places like southern California and south Florida, which happen also to be hotbeds of celebrity and the fame fixation. Seems like more kids these days are more intent on becoming known and adulated by their peers. They might reconsider that goal, in the light of Stoic and Epicurean wisdom about the benefits of a quiet life among people who really care about you.

If we have time today we’ll also talk about Augustine and free will, and I’ll look to the lighter side of the issue and of his story, “make me chaste but not yet” etc. 
I saw a copy of John Kaag’s new book at the APA, and also a sneak-peak preview in the WSJ. One of the talks at the SAAP session seemed to suggest that James liked “sick souls” more than “healthy-minded” happy folk. Not so, I think. That’s not the posture I’d recommend, anyhow. 

In A&P we’re wrapping up Neuroexistentialism and considering psychopathy and personal responsibility. Patricia Churchland’s Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition is good on this topic, btw. “Not every murderer is a psychopath; not every check forger, drug dealer, or habitual liar is a psychopath.” Or every POTUS, just #45.

I have to agree with Stephen Morse, that the likes of Charles Guiteau and Bernie Madoff and Timothy McVeigh, crazy or not, deserve more from us (and less) than sorrow and regret “but not anger, blame, and punishment.”
And I guess I have to agree with C.S. Lewis – or is it C.I., or C.L. – whichever of them said “a system that treats people as responsible agents is ultimately more humane and respectful” ends our book on a responsibly-sane note.

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A bigger picture

February 25, 2020

When the big picture keeps getting darker, writes Margaret Renkl (as paraphrased by a Times headline-maker) it helps to zoom. Chance the Gardener was right, there will be new growth in spring. That’s the bigger picture.  But zoom in, for a closer peek into dark corners, or out, for a more expansive view? In reveals life in fine-grained detail, the not-quite-micro world we normally miss. 

Bigger still is the cosmic perspective that only comes into focus when we zoom out, so effectively refracted in Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture. “The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.” Well, we bring our capacity to notice and appreciate the beauty, and to talk about it. There are always better things to talk about than most of what preoccupies us day to day. We must put the news in its place.
In CoPhi today we turn to the ancient Skeptics, whose unwillingness to commit and thus risk error and possible conflict shrinks and diminishes the picture dramatically. The better skeptic commits to the search for knowledge and truth, even while doubting its completion. We also note Dayton Tennessee’s outsize claim to evolutionary-historical importance. Ask me about my first landlord.
In A&P we again wonder if justice can be retributive or retribution just, and entertain a view called neuronaturalism — the thesis that, in imagining options, evaluating them, and making a decision, “each of those mental processes just is (or is realized in) a complex set of neural processes which causally interact in accord with the laws of nature.” 
Part of my neural processes are already on their way to Chicago, where I’m scheduled to participate in a panel for the William James Society. One of our panelists has had to withdraw because her flight from China has been cancelled, hope the forecast of a big snowfall doesn’t cancel mine from Nashville.

I’ll be continuing my reflections on James and his pal Josiah Royce, and whether I’ve long tilted too far to the former’s corner without giving the idealist his due. In other words, have I missed a bigger picture in which pragmatist and idealist stride together in affirmation of naturalism, meliorism, and “the beloved community”? Probably.

“Unless you can find some sort of loyalty,” said Royce, “you cannot find unity and peace in your active living.” My advocacy of James is some sort of loyalty, but it doesn’t (I now think) require or gain from a repudiation of his friend’s mostly-complementary non-competing views. 

“If this life is not a real fight,” said James, “in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.”

There’s still room in Royce’s world for nobility in the fight for liberty and justice for all. I didn’t see that before, now I do. I’m finally seeing a bigger picture.

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Aristotle, peripatetics, “free won’t”

February 20, 2020
They dialed up the heat at last night’s Nevada debate, but didn’t cast a lot more light. I have to agree with the baseball philosopher Bill (not William) James, a show of angry mutual incivility is really not constructive at this stage. Save it for Drumpf. But the good news is that last night should have punctured Bloomberg’s trial balloon, particularly due to all those NDAs. This being America, though, where $$ talks loudest, it probably didn’t.

In CoPhi today we’re talking Aristotle and the Peripatetics (both those student-scholars who literally followed him around his Lyceum campus, and those who followed in his spirit historically to create the  tradition of philosophy in motion. (See Rebecca Solnit’s peripatetic chapter in Wanderlust, and recall “Gymnasiums of the Mind“.) 

Aristotle was much concerned with the causes of motion, from the Prime Mover on. Here’s an interesting poll stale-mate: what if you were omniscient, omnipotent etc., but were not the originating source of motion in the universe? What would that make you? 

If you said “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” that would make you uncharacteristically poetic. We don’t know if an easy eloquence came to the Stagirite, since most of what’s come down to us from him is in the form of lecture notes and not polished prose. But he meant we shouldn’t judge of the success or flourishing of our lives (“happiness” is not the best translation of eudaimonia, but it’s the most common) on the basis of too small a slice of time and experience, or in strictly self-referential terms. Raphael’s School of Athens, rightly depicts him reaching for the natural world, in contrast to his teacher’s ostentatious upward ostension.  He’d have been appalled to learn that subsequent generations ossified his legacy by treating him as the conversation-stopping final authority, The Philosopher. Not his fault, but it’s an ironic illustration of what he meant when he said our total eudaimonia depends on factors beyond our control and even beyond our lifespans.

In Fantasyland today we consider the American pastoral ideal, the transparent eyeball of Concord, the fake discovery of lunar life long ago, the carnival-barking all-American huckster Barnum, and Chicago’s shiny faux-fest event that still symbolizes much that is phony in our public life.

In A&P today, more on free will, determinism, neuroscience , responsibility etc. Daniel Dennett’s free will determinism and Michael Gazzaniga’s storytelling separation of free will from responsibility come under the spotlight. Despite their differences I think they agree: we experience our freedom, when we do, as a narration in progress and not a closed book.  
Some of my questions: if you think free will skepticism does not threaten your prospects of finding meaning in life, but have constructed your life on the premise that without free will we’re just automata, aren’t you going to have a difficult story to tell? Can you stage a meaningful 2d act, after being persuaded to accept fws? Wouldn’t you have to experience the decision to do so as a free choice?

Does the question “Why did you decide to do that?” not beg the question, for the fw skeptic?


“Dennett, drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy, demonstrates that free will exists in a deterministic world for humans only, and that this gives us morality, meaning, and moral culpability. Weaving a richly detailed narrative…”

So, as we were saying in class last time, we are “special”-and it’s not arrogant to say so, it’s just naturally human.

In his first Gifford Lecture, Gazzaniga says to understand anything from a biologic perspective requires an evolutionary context to make sense of emergent complexity and cultural expectations like volitional self-control. Again, in Dennett’s phrase, freedom evolves. So, free will? Maybe the internalization of civility and a socially-sanctioned willingness to apply the brakes to otherwise-determined behaviors, which we might better call free won’t, is freedom enough for us. We’re free at least, apparently, to tell that story.

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The real Socrates,

February 18, 2020

What a gorgeous day we had in middle Tennessee yesterday, perfect weather for biking at Edwin Warner and hiking at the Burch Reserve Trail. Spring was in the air. I’m ready.

In CoPhi today, we’ll search for the real Socrates.

Those who know Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato – Xenophon’s near-exact contemporary – will find Xenophon’s Socrates something of a surprise. Plato’s Socrates claims to know nothing, and flamboyantly refutes the knowledge claims of others. In the pages of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, however, Socrates actually answers philosophical questions, dispenses practical life advice, provides arguments proving the existence of benevolent gods, converses as if peer-to-peer with a courtesan, and even proposes a domestic economy scheme whereby indigent female relatives can become productive through the establishment of a textile business at home… this Socrates takes his conversation partner through logical steps that are not designed to refute him or humiliate him, but to awaken him to a different way of looking at the natural world… It’s not brow-beating, but gentle leading, which leaves his intellectual self-respect intact. This is a hallmark of Xenophon’s Socrates.

Another recent re-take of “the real Socrates” suggests a less buttoned-down version, “more worldly and amorous than we knew.” More importantly, it cites Aristotle’s insistence that Socrates was more sympathetic to his own philosophy than to Plato’s. “For him, Socrates was also a more down-to-earth thinker than Plato sought to depict… the picture of Socrates bequeathed by Plato should not be accepted uncritically.”

On the heels of Valentine’s Day, note: Socrates “is famous for saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But the one thing he claims, in Plato’s Symposium, that he does know about, is love, which he learned about from a clever woman.” Diotima? Or “an instructor of eloquence and relationship counsellor” called Aspasia?

Either way, the iconic version of Socrates is one who values extended and even interminable conversations that disabuse all interlocutors of any dogmatic assurance they may have assumed. The wise know that they know not. And so it’s very hard to believe that the real Socrates would have endorsed Plato’s rigidly top-down authoritarian Republic.

After all, Socrates is one of the deepest roots of our “reflex to disbelieve official explanations.” Fantasyland  also reminds us  today that the suspicion and paranoia endemic to public life in our day is rooted in a bad old habit of inventing conspiracies where none exist. The Freemasons, for instance, are and always were simply fraternal organizations for guys who like to socialize and “perform goofy secret rituals,” not a pernicious cabal out to rule the world.

In A&P today we’ll hear from Heather of Christopher Hitchens, mortality, and meaning. I’m fond of quoting Hitch’s answer to the nihilist (or Extreme Existentialist) who proclaims meaninglessness as our natural condition. “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.” That’s pragmatism to the rescue again.

I like Walter Glannon’s statement: “We do not ‘find’ meaning in the brain, any more than an existentialist ‘finds’ meaning in the world. Rather, we construct it from the actions we perform on the basis of our brain-enabled mental capacities… There is more to persons than can be dreamed of in our neuroscience.”

Socrates would like that too. Plato, I’m not so sure.

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