Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

A clone question, bro

February 13, 2013

I couldn’t resist: our first new Bioethics case today leads off with the hydra-headed baseball performance-enhancing scandal that won’t go away, and our last sends in the clones… so naturally I free-associated Bryce Harper. (He’s not a drug abuser himself, so far as I know, though he was responding to a question about beer.) It pains me to say so, but Big Papi might be right about the dumbest athletes who play the smartest game. They need enhancement, alright, of the mental (not steroidal) variety.

I really thought I’d put the steroids era in baseball behind me three years ago, at our annual baseball conference down the hall. Guess not.

The rest of today’s lineup features Glenn McGee’s concerns about epigenetics and designer babies. The genes in our cells can be altered by our specific environments. “Not all genetic problems are hereditary,”  and babies of the future will likely inherit specifically-engineered traits. This could be a good thing: “tomorrow’s environmental movement may be  as much about reducing the local consumption of the human body as about preserving the distant rain forest.” We need to think more about the potential social benefits of genetic engineering, as well as possible personal harm.

Once nurture seemed clearly distinct from nature. Now it appears that our diets and lifestyles can change the expression of our genes. How? By influencing a network of chemical switches within our cells collectively known as the epigenome. This new understanding may lead us to potent new medical therapies. Epigenetic cancer therapy, for one, already seems to be yielding promising results. Nova

Our present understanding of those chemical switches, marks, and tags is rudimentary, a recent study indicates:

Researchers know a gene will remain stable, but the chemical tags that turn the genes on and off are not so reliable. Their presence can be affected by the environment or medications or even the activity of other, distant genes. They can be a consequence of a disease or set off a disease.

“That’s the problem,” Harvard’s Bradley Bernstein said, “the arrow of time problem.” What is cause and what is effect?

We really need to figure that out, for “lots of our habits might be be better served by a more resilient heart, lungs, and brain.” Of course.

But “imagine implanting telecommunications, data transfer, and enhanced entertainment directly into your brain.” I’m trying.

I’m trying not to fret too much about information-overload and nature-deficit disorder, when it becomes literally no longer possible to turn off the receiver. You can put on and take off your google glasses at will, Sergei, addiction issues aside; but how easy will it be to shut down the implants?

And yet, how alluring to imagine random internal access to an entire universe of information, culture, and personal memory!

We also have to catch up today on the cases our wonderful Peace Corps class bumped on Monday, and if there’s time I’d love a little coaching from my collaborators for the radio interview I’m supposed to record right after class.

Busy busy busy. My own personal clone assistant would sure make life easier.

Or would it? McGee notes what he calls the pediatric model of human reproduction according to which we bear the “responsibility to care for those created,” by whatever means. But he’s most enthusiastic for the adoption model, which he says

can move the debate about cloning and new reproductive technologies from its present, highly politicized rancor into a more constructive arena in which interdisciplinary and bipartisan consensus may be possible.

With the right model we’ll be less tempted in the future to try and secure “perfect” families, and will acknowledge that

children of new and unusual techniques merit special protection, but such protection ought not to be onerous for parents once the parental relationship is consecrated.

Paraphrasing Tolstoy: every kind of family is imperfect in its own way. Still, McGee suggests, a cloned family might be just too hard to consecrate.

But in the spirit of Darwin Day, and invoking an old Dominican hurler‘s “favorite English word”: youneverknow

Baseball and the meaning of life

March 30, 2012

Pitchers & catchers report in 15 days

February 4, 2012

We’ve sorta skipped winter so far, and that’s ok with me. Get football behind us in Indy tomorrow and start the joyful & serious countdown: “pitchers and catchers report” in just 15 days, in some places. Others will show up a bit later. Pujols says he’ll be there a week early. (“There” being nowhere this year, if you’re a spurned St. Louisan, but just a little more heavenly if you wear a halo.)

It’s also time to count down to the annual “Baseball in Literature and Culture” conference in my building,  coming in March. What’ll I contribute this time?

Think I’ll start with Albert. I’d often wondered how it’d feel if he ever left the nest, and I can report that it feels ok so far. I find, to my surprise, that I have no problem contemplating the post-Pujols era in St. Louis. Unlike some, I don’t resent a great player’s wish to be paid the premium his old employer thought to meet with fan appreciation. I’m grateful for his service, and wish him well in Anaheim. Say hello to Mickey and Goofy.

And that will probably prompt me to revisit my previous topic of a couple years ago, when I was worrying that I’d have a hard time pulling for my team with its new performance-enhanced hitting coach (Mark McGwire) sitting in the dugout. Turns out I had no problem at all overlooking Big Mac, all through the Cards’ incredible late and post-season run to another World Series championship last October.

So, I’ll plan to share with the baseball literati some reflections on how much bigger the game is than any “star” performer (enhanced or merely “blessed”).

Also, some thoughts on the best baseball fiction I’ve seen in years, The Art of Fielding. It’s about baseball the same way Moby Dick‘s about a fish. Actually it is about that, too.  And the best baseball prose by a former poet laureate, Donald Hall. The wonderful Armchair Book of Baseball arrived yesterday, bearing with it the full text of his “Baseball and the Meaning of Life.” There’s this year’s working title. Not too pretentious for the James Union Building, I hope.

And, this having been the year I recreated my own father-son outing to Wrigley Field in the summer of ’72 with our girls, I’ll have to throw in something about Younger Daughter’s weirdly beautiful devotion to the Cubbies and their fans’ almost religious faith. “Go Cubs Go…”

What Super Bowl? If the Giants can’t win or lose a pennant I’m just not that interested. Oh, I’ll go to the party. But my head will be elsewhere. The countdown’s begun.

Donald Hall’s window

January 21, 2012

Donald Hall is one of my favorite poets, a former poet laureate, a Red Sox fan (and author of “The Baseball Players” and “Baseball and the Meaning of Life“) , and a feature subject in the current New Yorker (which I’ve finally caught up with). He’s now old and alone (his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon left us several years ago) and infirm, no longer writing poetry but still loving life. The view from his window is a reminder to us all that we’re damned lucky to be here, and should not waste a breath on despair.

Jennifer Hecht has also read Hall’s essay and commented on it.

Did you read the piece by Donald Hall in the New Yorker this week? It is an essay on looking out the window, old, and between pages on birds and snow he reports on his life with a phrase for each decade, his thirties bad, his forties forgotten because he was drunk, fifties a good total change of life. Each brings so many questions none of which he there answers. We’re in the middle of so many adventures. Life, I’ve long said, is a decent book with a terrible pacing problem.

The pacing gets too slow in January, she’s saying. April is not the cruelest month. How could a St. Louisan like T.S. Eliot say such a ridiculous thing? Oh, yeah – he’s one of the two from my hometown- the other was a student last Fall- I’ve encountered who did not care about the Cards. He was a convert to Catholicism and not to the Church of Baseball, aka “religion without the mischief.”

I think Mr. Hall shares George Santayana’s perspective on the seasons, as expressed in The Life of Reason: we should enjoy each in turn, and not allow ourselves to be hopelessly in love only with the Spring.

But I still can’t wait for April. Neither can Donald Hall.

ethics and the religion of humanity

November 1, 2011

November? How’d it get to be November already? October really flies when you’re in the World Series.

But it’s time to turn the page and think ahead. Not too far ahead, Spring Training doesn’t start for another three and a half months. Since weaning myself from football, on ethical grounds, I’m down to one spectator sport. (I like basketball well enough, I just don’t like being indoors.)  In theory that should mean more time and attention for reality.

Reality. What a concept.

Yesterday I turned my attention to next semester and the reprised Atheism & Philosophy course we begin in January. Two years ago it was Atheism & Spirituality. This time the focus is on ethics, and an attempt to think through William James’s claim in “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” that we can be good (or bad, or indifferent) without any external support.

Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist… we form at any rate an ethical republic here below. And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. “The religion of humanity” affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.

That rings so true to me that I’ve never really challenged it. Dostoevsky was just wrong, I’ve insisted: if a God doesn’t exist there are still plenty of things not “permitted.” Sartre was wrong too: you don’t have to embody a God-given essence in order to exist as an ethically-bound individual, and community standards are not arbitrary for being sui generis. We are social animals, we possess a capacity for compassion and mutual concern, our goodness (and badness and indifference) are natural. This I believe.

But it’s not enough merely to believe, if you call yourself a philosopher. So we’ll see. Should be a good course.

Now, though, back to present reality. We’re taking a breather in SOL, if you can call an exam that, but will get back shortly to JMH and her “Bodies” chapters. “You are not in your body. You are your body.” That’s why my morning coffee can pack such an existential punch, and that about wraps it up for Cartesian dualism. Right?

Now that’s a “reality” question. But, did you catch Letterman and Leno last night?

One more thing: how about novel writing as sport? Or endurance test? It’s time for NaNoWriMo

“What was going through your mind?”

October 29, 2011

Cards win! What were you thinking?

Television sports journalists love to ask heroic athletes that question. Lance Berkman didn’t miss a beat, when interviewed about his crucial extra-inning hit in Game #6: “nothing!” No complicated thoughts, no tortured reflections, just concentration and execution. Think about it later. Johnny Damon once said he tried not to think, when he did it only hurt the team.

It’s an approach to work a philosophy professor has to envy. This one, anyway.

So what went through my mind last night, when Allen Craig squeezed the last out of Game #7 and gave my team its 11th MLB championship (second only to the Yankees), crowning an incredible, improbable victory run after falling out of the race in August?

Well, I tried not to think, tried just to enjoy the moment, to celebrate and meditate on it. Did my best, but at best I’m an amateur meditator. (Eric did a report for us in SOL the other day on how to meditate, and I asked him: how do you actually manage to fend off invasive thoughts? The gist of his answer was: by not trying. Guess I need to try harder to not try so hard.)

So, some pleasant thoughts leaked in. I remembered sharing the last such moment with my Dad in ’06 and wished he were here for this one. The wish made it so, of course. I thought about how good it was that Step-mom and sister were here in body, as Dad was in treasured memory.

I thought about the despondency of losing to the Red Sox in ’04, but also of how their fans at Vanderbilt (where I was teaching at the time) grinned and glowed for weeks.

I thought of ’67, when my team beat the Sox in 7.

And then I thought: I can’t wait ’til next year.

Where to, humanity?

October 3, 2011

Cards & Phils are all tied up, 4-4, in the 6th inning of Game #2 (we’ll not talk about Game #1), as I sit down on Sunday night to think about Monday’s class. Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Dewey, James… they were all evolutionists, but were any of them baseball fans? Well, Mill was a cricketer, Nietzsche a “footballer.” Dewey praised the “tense grace of the outfielder.” One of James’s students tried to interest him in the game once, without success:

Morris Rafael Cohen records, “When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘ I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations.”

And that’s a good segue to Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche. All were concerned, in one way or another, with the prospective greatness of humanity. A common misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis had him defending the “survival of the fittest” ethos as social policy. But Darwin was no Social Darwinist, preferring instead the cooperative liberal vision of his countryman Mill.

And then there’s Nietzsche, heralding the Ubermensch (“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”), aspiring to a personal future “beyond good and evil,” heaping scorn and abuse on comfortable “couch potato” English values (like democracy and “utility”), and insisting that hardship is the cost of greatness.

Nietzsche liked Emerson, and his “self-reliance.” The “Divinity School Address” must have pleased him too, with its repudiation of Judeo-Christian(-Islamic) supernaturalism and “monstrous distortion” of Jesus’ message that our life is a natural miracle, “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Nietzsche read German translations of Emerson’s essays, copied passages from “History” and “Self-Reliance” in his journals, and wrote of the Essays: that he had never “felt so much at home in a book.” Emerson’s ideas about “strong, overflowing” heroes, friendship as a battle, education, and relinquishing control in order to gain it, can be traced in Nietzsche’s writings. Other Emersonian ideas-about transition, the ideal in the commonplace, and the power of human will permeate the writings of such classical American pragmatists as William James and John Dewey. SEP [affinity]

Thoreau reputedly lived a lot like Nietzsche, in (relative) hermetic isolation. But did you know that during his sojourn at Walden pond, on property owned by Emerson, he made regular town-rounds and dropped his laundry off at Mom’s? [pics]

Peirce imagined the ideal end of intellectual history, defining truth as the view destined to be agreed upon. “Agreement” is not a term often associated with Nietzsche.

And what did James think of Nietzsche? Lumped him with Schopenhauer as a pair of rats, and pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies.”

(5-4 Cards in the  7th…)

Are We Still Evolving?… Darwin & friendsEvolution & cooperationbest idea evermeanings evolvebest way to begin each day (Nietzsche?!)… nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach yainto thin air (Nietzsche on hardship)…recurrence (“When N. Wept”)… “I am dynamite

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll finish PW this week. On Monday & Tuesday,

M 3 PW 104-113. Mill & Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson & Thoreau, Peirce & Dewey, James.

And note: next week it’s time to declare your report intentions: solo or collaborative, presentation or essay, and what’s your topic? Signups on the 10th & 11th.

See you all in class.

PostscriptCards win!

I wonder: does an interest in spectator sports help or hinder the evolution of our species? This morning my feeling is, if the future has no MLB postseason I don’t want to go. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie…”

Trying not to think with my gut

September 30, 2011

The Thursday afternoon tutorial on William James I’ve been doing with a couple of students got cancelled yesterday, so I was able to attend the weekly meeting of the new undergraduate Philosophy Club from the beginning. It’s a small but passionate bunch, excited about ideas and eclectic in conversational range. If you like that sort of thing, drop in at 5 pm on Thursdays (James Union Building on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, roon 304).

Yesterday’s discussion began with the perennial free will debate but quickly moved on to the nature and existence of souls, the untapped potential of brains, Cartesian dualism, the possibility that we might be living in a “matrix,” collective dreaming, and on and on. Just a bit undisciplined, but what else would be the point and pleasure of an undergraduate philosophy club?

I would only remind them of Carl Sagan’s cautionary wisdom in Demon-haunted World. Asked for his gut feeling about UFOs and aliens he always responded:

I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.  Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

The gut has its place. It’s what I was “thinking” with all day yesterday under my “StL” hat, as if the latest fortunes of a professional sports franchise in my long-ago hometown should have anything at all to do with my outlook on the value of existence. It was my gut that felt annoyed when my colleague (a long-ago East Coaster), fully informed of the Red Sox collapse, admitted not knowing about the Cards’ historic comeback.

Gut-level emotive “thinking” is what childhood indoctrination is especially good at engendering and reinforcing. Baseball is St. Louis’s civic religion, at least since the St. Louis Hegelians folded their tent. They got me early. (I attended my first Cardinals game in about 1966, just before they opened the new stadium that they tore down in 2005.)

Baloney has its place, too. And so has critical thinking. As skeptic Michael Shermer notes, “when we’re growing up we tend to be pretty credulous.” We should all read his magazine.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a world of wonders we’re living in. Our existence is a natural miracle.  Here we are, in the face of “stupefying odds.” That’s worth talking about, every Thursday afternoon. And I’m even luckier, I get paid to do it every single day.

Dawkins’ SpiritualityRainbow Warrior

“tiny lights along the path of happiness”

September 29, 2011

Stayed up too late making exams and watching baseball. Cards win! Rays too. Wild!! They’ve captured the zeitgeist. For the Braves and Bosox, history has moved on.

Priorities are important, especially those bearing “World-historical” Meaning. Maybe I was too quick the other day to dismiss the parochial self-importance of those old St. Louis Hegelians. Probably not.

In SOL our higher immediate priority is to close the book on Matthieu Ricard’s version of Happiness, the final words of which we’ll ponder today before our first exam. (Think of it as a mini-retreat, like an MRI… or as an exhibition warm-up before the playoffs get serious. Just don’t stress about it. Look for loopholes, use language strategically, smile and laugh, and memento mori.)

He says in his pre-Buddhist French secular youth it never occurred to him to think of himself as happy, or even of wanting to be. But now,

The sense of flourishing I now feel at every moment of my existence was constructed over time… one can become enduringly free and happy…

That’s inspiring, even if “every moment of my existence” sounds a little exaggerated. And though some of us have picked a bit at Ricard’s vague exercise advice (“make your mind as wide as the sky… remain in the interval of nowness…” etc.), I for one come again to the end of this book feeling like I’ve spent valuable time in the company of a genuinely, serenely happy and decent human being. I believe him when he proffers his humble “deepest wish”

that the ideas gathered in this book may serve as tiny lights along the path of temporary and ultimate happiness of all beings.

That’s what a Bodhisattva sounds like. To dispel the misery of the worldRicard, finis

Our other priorities today: 1. regroup (and rededicate ourselves to the group concept, in the spirit of Hegel). 2. Vote for our November read. Here are the nominees, based on our last class:

  • Exploring Happiness (Bok)
  • Generosity (Powers)
  • Geography of Bliss (Weiner)
  • Selected essays culled from the Internet (Aristotle, Montaigne, James…)
  • How to See Yourself as You Really Are OR For the Benefit of All Beings OR Art of Happiness (Dalai Lama)
  • The Monk and the Philosopher (Ricard & Revel)
  • Existentialism and Human Emotions (Sartre)
  • Flow (Csikszentihalyi)
  • The Alchemist (Coelho)
  • Surprised by Joy (Lewis)
With so many nominees, there may be no clear winner (with at least half the votes) on 1st ballot. If so, we’ll have a 2d-ballot runoff between the top two or three choices. If a tie-breaker is then still needed, I’ll cast it.
It’s good to be King.


January 17, 2010

That’s the countdown to the new baseball season, my great symbolic annual thaw, my “return to life”: it’s about thirty days, give or take, ’til pitchers and catchers start to report to Spring Training. I’m angling to get there myself, possibly with Older Daughter in tow, en route to a philosophy conference in Charlotte, NC. We’ll see.

The countdown has experienced a hiccup, though, with the Mark McGwire rehab story coming out of St. Louis. I experimented with supporting Joe Torre’s Dodgers in the last postseason, if things don’t improve I may have to think about adopting a new team and switching allegiances permanently.

Well, clearly I am “thinking about it.” Actually doing it is probably impossible, given the coercive power of childhood indoctrination. But I’ve never been a Tony LaRussa fan, and his protests of ignorance about McGwire’s steroid abuse remind me of Tricky Dick Nixon. What did he know and when did he know it? And, as Senator Baker also used to ask, if he didn’t know it, why  in the world not? He was the President [manager]!

I’ve been more down on football than usual of late, because of new research showing that it’s even more brutally violent than meets the eye; and I still feel a general antipathy for collegiate athletics, for compromising the academic mission of the university. Baseball has always been my safe harbor as a sports indulgence that seemed at least relatively semi-defensible, compared to the others. But this performance-enhancement scandal continues to vex.

The  submission deadline for this year’s Baseball and Literature conference in March looms (the extended deadline, thankfully). It’ll be good therapy to hammer out a presentation addressing these issues.  The big-name guest speaker this year is going to be Ferguson Jenkins, the old Cub pitcher whose name reminds me instantly of my childhood favorite: Bob Gibson. A question to explore: were those guys really better heroes than the scandal-ridden Steroids Era players, McGwire and Sosa et al? Or were we, are we– meaning we fans of many decades– just naive? And does it matter?  Can we appreciate athletic excellence for its own sake, on the field, without worrying about what kinds of persons (and with what “enhancements”) are wearing the uniforms?

I’m thinking this last question mirrors an issue raised in class the other day: is a philosophy’s worth to be evaluated independently from the character and the biography of the philosopher? Does it matter that Heidegger was a Nazi, that James was prone to depression, that Nietzsche had trouble relating to women?

Of course it does. And it matters that a record-breaking season was juiced. Does it matter enough to make me question my continued interest in the game, or re-consider ancient admirations formed in childhood? Can’t wait to talk to Fergie about that.

***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***

NOTE to A&S students: I’ve posted another little Carl Sagan selection for you to take a look at before Tuesday, and if you want to read ahead for Thursday you can begin with the Center for Inquiry’s “Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism”  and the Secular Humanists‘ Declaration too. Then, have a look at the Brights‘ site.  Which reminds me to remind you: