Posts Tagged ‘Blogger’


January 20, 2021

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Happy Inauguration Day!

The current issue of The New Yorker, the one with Trump (the “great weight”) being whisked away on the wings of the exasperated American eagle, notices something completely different in the sky: “Oumuamua,” that mysterious 2017 dot of light Harvard astrophysicist Avi (no, auto-correct, not “Aviation”) Loeb called “plausibly of extraterrestrial-technology origin.” In resisting the “Sagan standard” for extraordinary claims, he makes a Jamesian “will to believe” sort of point. Is there really a chance he’s right? It certainly is “thrilling to imagine the possibilities”…

Swinging on a Star
…It’s often said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The phrase was popularized by the astronomer Carl Sagan, who probably did as much as any scientist has done to promote the search for extraterrestrial life. By what’s sometimes referred to as the “Sagan standard,” Loeb’s claim clearly falls short; the best evidence he marshals for his theory that ‘Oumuamua is an alien craft is that the alternative theories are unconvincing. Loeb, though, explicitly rejects the Sagan standard—“It is not obvious to me why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” he observes—and flips its logic on its head: “Extraordinary conservatism keeps us extraordinarily ignorant.” So long as there’s a chance that 1I/2017 U1 is an alien probe, we’d be fools not to pursue the idea. “If we acknowledge that ‘Oumuamua is plausibly of extraterrestrial-technology origin,” he writes, “whole new vistas of exploration for evidence and discovery open before us.”

In publishing his theory, Loeb has certainly risked (and suffered) ridicule. It seems a good deal more likely that “Extraterrestrial” will be ranked with von Däniken’s work than with Galileo’s. Still, as Serling notes toward the end of “In Search of Ancient Astronauts,” it’s thrilling to imagine the possibilities: “Look up into the sky some clear, starlit night and allow yourself the freedom to wonder.” ♦

Elizabeth Kolbert

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January 18, 2021
We’re still a week away from Opening Day, for the still-remote Spring 2021 semester, but student Introductions have begun to pop up on our course blogsite.

The first, prompted by my query about favorite philosophers, references one Olaf Stapledon. I think that’s the first time anyone in my classes has mentioned him, in all these years. I didn’t know a thing about him. Now I know he wrote Star Maker, and thinks “an emerging consciousness is the ultimate goal of the universe.” 

Also that he “directly influenced Arthur C. Clarke” (open the pod-bay door, HAL) and other sci-fi luminaries. And said “Philosophy is an amazing tissue of really fine thinking and incredible, puerile mistakes. It’s like one of those rubber ‘bones’ they give dogs to chew, damned good for the mind’s teeth, but as food – no bloody good at all.” Ha! But my dogs do enjoy their Kong chewies, and I enjoy my philosophy.

Olaf Stapledon, I told my student, 
is very interesting! Sounds like he may have had an impact on your thinking comparable to Carl Sagan’s on me, back in the day when I first picked up and read his book “Cosmic Connection”…
Personally I don’t believe the universe per se has an “ultimate goal,” but I do think forming goals and pursuing them is crucially important for us all. And I do think we’re vitally connected to the universe, we’re “starstuff studying the stars”-that’s our cosmic connection.

Another new student, a chem major,  says he likes “to look into why we do things/things happen, rather than just to know why A causes B.” And he likes “a strong cut of Stoicism. Roll with the punches, keep your head high, and don’t complain.”

You’ve hit on a couple of fundamental distinctions in western philosophy: appearance/reality, and causes/reasons. What’s real and true vs. illusory and false (or “fake”)… What explains events & actions vs. what justifies them…
Stoicism is indeed a philosophy for our time, and maybe all times. I prefer the variant known as Stoic Pragmatism, which says don’t complain UNLESS complaining leads to constructive action that fixes what’s broken.

Looking forward to more of these philosophical Introductions. Teacher’s still got lots to learn! 

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Lifelong learning

January 15, 2021

A lesson I’ve been gratefully learning from my septuagenarian students:

“…try recalling what it felt like to learn how to do something new when you didn’t really care what your performance of it said about your place in the world, when you didn’t know what you didn’t know. It might feel like a whole new beginning.”

Margot Talbot, New Yorker

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“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

January 14, 2021
Democracy is a political ideal and a moral aspiration, says Robert Talisse, where each of us can look our neighbor in the eye…
and not think Mr. Rogers was a hopelessly naive and idealistic idiot, maybe?


For the record, I do like and appreciate some of my neighbors. Some. 
And, ideally and aspirationally, I like Mr. Rogers’s song/message too.

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Meaningful work

January 12, 2021

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What’s Wrong with the Way We Work

…Everywhere you look you hear people talking about meaning,” a disillusioned Google engineer told McCallum. “They aren’t philosophers. They aren’t psychologists. They sell banner ads.” It’s not pointless. But it’s not poetry. Still, does it have to be?

Jill Lepore

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Hawley’s heresy

January 11, 2021

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The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage Why do so many Republicans appear to be at war with both truth and democracy?

…In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, Mr. Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius — a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago. In a 2019 commencement address at The King’s College, a small conservative Christian college devoted to “a biblical worldview,” Mr. Hawley denounced Pelagius for teaching that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.

The most eloquent summary of the Pelagian vision, Mr. Hawley went on to say, can be found in the Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Mr. Hawley specifically cited Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words reprovingly: “At the heart of liberty,” Kennedy wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The fifth century church fathers were right to condemn this terrifying variety of heresy, Mr. Hawley argued: “Replacing it and repairing the harm it has caused is one of the challenges of our day.”

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Character first

January 7, 2021

"We need to look infinitely harder at who we elect to any office in our land — at the office seeker's character, at their morals, at their ethical record, their integrity, their honesty, their flaws, what they have said about women, and minorities, why they are seeking office in the first place, and only then consider the policies they espouse," Kelly said.

Aides weigh resignations, removal options as Trump rages against perceived betrayals

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The fragility of U.S. democracy

January 6, 2021

"We're accustomed to thinking of America as an old democracy. But, as a multi-racial democracy, it's young — even younger than some post-colonial nations in the developing world. The only way to secure democracy's victory is by acknowledging how fragile American democracy has always been."

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Pushing past the comfort zone

January 4, 2021

 Holidays are finally over, if we don’t count the spousal birthday next week (which incidentally coincides with William James’s birthday). Time to push past the self-indulgent seasonal comfort zone of sitting around the figurative yule log, reading randomly, binging the Twilight Zone etc. Time to actually get things done. Pound out those syllabi, for starters. Comfort comes with a cost, as my old mentor said.

Dr. Gupta on Sunday Morning promoted his book (“Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age”) and said you should do something every day that pushes you out of your comfort zone, to optimize brain health. “Do something that scares you every day… do something different, learn a new skill.” 

And do the little, trivial, slightly-discomfiting things like varying your routes and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. I always used to do that, heading to my 3d-floor classes in the Business and Aerospace Building for instance. Haven’t had occasion to do that lately, of course.) 

Work your heart, to instruct your brain. “When you move it’s like you’re signaling to the brain I want to be here… try and moderately move throughout the day…” And: eat berries (and less red meat), sleep better, and be kind. Walk briskly with a friend, talk about your troubles to build intimacy and establish firm connection. 

How about walking with two 4-legged friends, occasionally thinking about your problems but also your good fortune in being here to worry about your brain and your life at all? 

One of the problems I’ll ponder during our brisk dogwalk this morning is what to finally think about Richard Rorty. I’ve never got entirely sorted out on how I feel about his neo-pragmatism, though I think I’ve probably treated him too dismissively at times in the past.

I’ve been re-reading Philosophy and Social Hope and Achieving Our Country. . He has a cringe-inducing injudicious way of saying things that, in the almost-post-Trump era, sound (as James said of FCS Schiller’s claims about the plasticity of the world) “butt-end-foremost.” For instance, “No organism, human or non-human, is ever more or less in touch with reality than any other organism. The very idea of ‘being out of touch with reality’ presupposes the un-Darwinian, Cartesian picture of a mind which somehow swings free of the causal forces exerted on the body.”

Yes, but…

And yet, I do resonate to his anti-Platonism and his entirely Jamesian sense that our best amelioratve efforts may yet run aground. Nothing in Reality guarantees their success. Still, I take him to be saying, we must hold our heads up and fight the good fight with confident cheer. The comfortable alternative is debilitating and possibly even dementia-making. More on this soon, as I anticipate Rorty’s relevance in at least three courses (including Democracy in America) looming now on the approaching semester’s horizon. 

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Let’s hope it’s a good one

January 1, 2021

 An old friend once told me he believes that what you do on January 1 sets the template and pattern for your year.

I don’t myself think there’s anything magical about any particular calendar date. Or anything else, for that matter. What people call magical I call marvelous, or wondrous, or surprising, or improbable… but never mind, that’s a different conversation.

I do accept the spirit of my friend’s statement, enthusiastically. I believe in fresh beginnings and new seasons and returns to life and good intentions.

And so, on this fresh morning of 2021, I hereby proclaim the intention of capturing more reflections at, or before, or around dawn, recalling Thoreau’s definition: “morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.” So, that’s a good intention I can fulfill at any hour of the day or night. Being a morning person, though, I’d best intend to get up and doing first thing. 

One happy discovery of 2020 was that my dogs are not morning persons, they’re perfectly content to wait for me to finish my coffee and my typing before we venture out. Especially on a rainy day. Oddly, it’s supposed to be 72 degrees here later, when the rain stops. We’ll wait, as I proclaim my good intentions. 

I’ve noted another good intention, to follow Peter Singer’s advice and resolve to be a better person. As Henry says, “moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.” Waking up, in the Singer sense of moral reform, means in part deliberately not participating in the consumer economy in the usual way. No more impulse buys, fewer gratuitous and doomed stabs at immediate material gratification, more deliberation about how to do the most good with finite discretionary resources.

I was more diligent in 2020 about private journaling, recalling Emerson’s instigating question to young Thoreau: “What are you doing now? Do you keep a journal?” So I make my first entry to-day. HDT, Oct 22, 1837. In 2021 I intend to be more diligent still, after seeing Madeleine L’Engle’s smart words on the subject:

If you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.

That’s another intention: read more, and more variously, to feed the impulse to “write, write, write… every day.”

Henry again: “No day will have been wholly misspent, if one sincere, thoughtful page has been written.”

And while I’m rehearsing inspirational homilies on this latest Day 1, here are some more I’ve found emboldening in the past.

  • “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”-Isabel Allende
  • “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules…” -Anthony Trollope
  • “I always write a thing first and think about it afterwards, because the easiest way to have consecutive thoughts is to start putting them down.”-E.B. White, who also said
  • “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Above all, as the pandemic and pusillanimous partisan nastiness persist into this new year:

  • “Keep your health, your splendid health. It’s worth all the truths in the firmament.” William James
And so, in service of bodily, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional health,  my most urgent homiletic advice to myself and anyone else who’ll listen:
  • Just keep moving.
Which I’ll heed as soon as the rain abates and the pooches stir.
Happy New Year

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