Posts Tagged ‘Blogger’

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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High hopes

February 13, 2020

Happy Almost Valentines Day and Happy Day After Darwin Day. My favorite Darwin quote: “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” And if they’re lucky they’ll make it to 63. (“Keep your health, your splendid health,” James told his friend Schiller. Mine was briefly in doubt last night, but I’m feeling resilient today-just in time for the party.)

Darwin’s most constructive (for us) regret: “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness…” But once a week is not enough. We need a daily dose of music and poetry (among other things) to flourish.

Also on my mind since yesterday: the new New Yorker piece on Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens (which means wise people). If his large message really is that “our political struggles barely matter” and that it’s okay not to care, then that’s not okay. The Lorax again speaks for me and the trees. “If someone like you doesn’t care a whole awful lot, nothing’s gonna get better. It’s not.” If we’re going to live up to our name (“sapiens,” wise guys) we’ll listen to him. We can’t afford the luxury of complacent optimism but we’d better be hopeful. Don’t panic, but also don’t stop thinking about (and working for) tomorrow. Nice to see an accurate write-up on that message in our student paper.

Today in CoPhi we note Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, for a scientific neophyte. We have lots of those, for whom magical thinking is the norm. Where’s the harm in that? one might ask. Isn’t it like homeopathy, benign and mostly harmless? But of course it IS harmful to your health to deny yourself effective medication in deference to snake oil. Surely it does harm our society that so many would impede the progressive promise of scientific rationalism. And it harms the children of magical thinkers to deny the reality of pain, suffering, and disease.

Mr. Twain again: history rhymes. Trouble is, so many of us have a tin ear for poetry.

The great California Gold Rush, says Kurt Andersen, was an inflection point in our history when many Americans began to entertain the fantasy of heaven on earth and the entrepreneurial spirit was born. Our national mythos obscures “the forgotten millions of losers and nincompoops” whose fantasies fell flat. But we celebrate those hard-luck ants and grasshoppers, those nose to the grindstone puritans with “a weakness for stories too good to be true,” who pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. They have high apple pie in the sky hopes. Or maybe just holes in the head.

Today in A&P we wonder with Neil Levy about choices without choosers and “a neuropsychologically plausible existentialism” according to which unity can be imposed on what we may choose to call ourselves (but not our selves?). Levy does not agree with Dan Dennett, though, in characterizing the self as a “user illusion.” There’s more to us than that, in the form of “a system with causal powers and the capacity to act on the world.” Such a system presumably can be authentic or not, in more-or-less familiar Existentialist terms.

For the trio of authors of “Relational Authenticity” it all comes down to 4Ms and 4Es: mind, meaning, morals, and modality are situated in a way that is embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended…


Heideggerian authenticity can sound a lot like parochial nationalism, with his emphasis on the establishment of identity through shared practices of a specific environment – especially if that environment is identified with a homeland and a “hero”-for heroes are rarely without their villains, whether truly villainous or scapegoated and persecuted. That may have been the furthest implication from his intent, but it’s hard to give a defender of the Reich an unprejudicial hearing.

Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus all come in for consideration and scrutiny here. A question for J-P (too bad we’ve come too late to hop the channel with Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion to ask him…and too bad that Python video has been blocked):

Is your famously disingenuous waiter really so inauthentic? Or is it mutually and rightly understood by waiter and customer alike that role-playing is an inescapable element of normal human life? Is it so different from playing professor-and-student? That’s a frequently-fun game – finite or infinite? “(Infinite games are more mysterious — and ultimately more rewarding. They are unscripted and unpredictable; they are the source of true freedom.”) –  I’ve always felt was authentic enough to continue indefinitely. My hopes are high for the play to go on and on.

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Keep on pushing

February 11, 2020

We’re experiencing a mysterious semi-power outage in our home this morning, so I’m even more in the dark than usual. All the more cause to appreciate Mr. Edison…

Happy birthday to the man who said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

And

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

And

“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

Which echoes Bertrand Russell (“Most people would rather die than think, and in fact most do”)
and William James (“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really just rearranging their prejudices”).
Edison was a freethinker and a fan of Tom Paine, approvingly citing Paine’s declaration that ‘The world is my country; to do good my religion.’ (More Paine below*)
Image result for light bulb

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” A.Dumbledore

 In CoPhi today we commence report presentations and continue following the great American retreat from reason and Enlightenment, from Cane Ridge to Joseph Smith.  Mark Twain summed up his century’s standard cerebral strategy: we feel, and call it thinking. We habitually mistrust our minds and turn to our guts for guidance. Visceral “thinking” is precisely what’s landed us in Fantasyland.

“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?” But 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. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

And yet, 19th century America was on track to “realize” Enlightenment before the forces of reaction gut-punched us back into our prolonged adolescent infatuation with superstition and supernaturalism. “Education became free and compulsory… we got telegraphy, high-speed printing presses, railroads, steamships, vaccination, anaesthesia, more.”

But we also got tellers of legendary tall tales. Ronald Reagan liked regaling us with stories of a mysterious angel in a dark robe whose sudden appearance (and equally sudden disappearance) at the Constitutional Convention knocked sense into the quarreling delegates. (“God has given America to be free!”) His source was supposed to be Thomas Jefferson.

Europeans traditionally have had a binary choice between state-sanctioned religion or none at all. America has always been about a wild sectarian smorgasbord of religious pluralism. We do like to choose. When we don’t like what’s on the current menu, we cook up a new religion. Christian Science, Scientology, Science of Mind,  et al. It’s been estimated that there are over 300 Christian denominations in the U.S. alone. That almost seems low.

Funny thing, though: in Jefferson’s day it was (he told European correspondents) the north that was known as a hotbed of “superstitious and hypocritical” piety, while southerners were “without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of the heart.”


The 19th century “Woodstock for American Christianity” came in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, whose high-on-heaven communicants have been described as “drunk as sexually aroused… walking to the altar to be saved and experience an all-consuming feeling of a personal relationship with Jesus.”

The next generation of evangelical enthusiasts included one Charles Finney, who was sure he’d met Jesus face to face. Literally. Even Billy Graham never claimed that, did he? Can’t speak for Franklin, whose claims I think we’ve learned to discount anyway. Finney was not doctrinaire, he just wanted us to meet and greet our savior too.  Of course the doctrine of eternal damnation always lurks behind the promise of eternal life, for those who doubt and question.

Alexis de Tocqueville, observing all this, said no country in the world was as fanatically Christian as America. Understandably. “Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”

And then came William Miller, who said Christ would be back in the Spring of 1843… Oops, April 1844. No wait, October. Well, stay tuned.

Joseph Smith takes top prize for sheer audacity of faith, if we can trust that he really believed his own story about the angel Moroni and the golden plates etc. “I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history, if I had not experienced what I have, I should not have believed it myself.” And yet, more than 15,000,000 present-day Latter Day Saints presumably have not experienced it but say they believe anyway.  That is truly a great mystery.

Citizen Tom Paine would defend their right to believe, but would also point out that no one is obliged to accept someone else’s experience as coercive of one’s own faith. “My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches… appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit… I do not choose to rest my belief upon such [hearsay] evidence.” Age of Reason

Today in A&P we also begin by pondering the power of emotion to run roughshod over reason. It’s important function is to give us our goals and an impetus to meet them, but it can sometimes also impede our ability to critique and modify them in the light of new ideas and evidence. But some would say that ability is already compromised by the imperative of our “selfish genes” whose reproductive success is what ultimately accounts for our goals. 

Richard Dawkins: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do…We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” If we don’t rebel, then there may well be a sense in which a person just is a vehicle driven by genes, in order to produce more of themselves. Can we occupy the driver’s seat? Can we “defer immediate gene-specified rewards and make longer-term plans” that do serve our goals?
And is this another way of asking, again, about free will?

This is also the context in which Dawkins introduced memes, the mind’s own replicating agents. He echoes Tom Paine “The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.” 

Even with rational inquiry, we must guard against the “sedimentation” (says Jesse Prinz) of social forces supplanting our individual critical choices and goal-seeking.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity acknowledges the inevitability of social forces defining us, by race or gender or whatever, until we accept the responsibility of pushing back. We’re not pure subjects, though. The fashioning of personal and social identity is always a matter of push-pull. Values do get sedimented in the brain, and it’s only the courageous persons whose brains ever get cleansed from too much accreted and unexamined layering.


Sartre’s bogey was bad faith, Marx’s was alienation, and the forest is full of other bogeys we must always be ready to face if we’re to flourish. For instance, the tedium and ennui and sheer sense of maddening pointless repetition were Camus’s Sisyphean bogeys. His solution, to keep pushing that stone, seems to me mis-characterized in our chapter as a case of acquiescence to absurdity. 
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” A full heart born of struggle is not resigned or acquiescent. but it probably is ironic and amused. So should we all be, in these strange days of ours. Keep on pushing.

Image result for sisyphus new yorker

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Stand!

February 6, 2020

Mitt Romney, profile in courage: who’d ever have predicted that!  “Lamar!” though, profile in cowardice, is sadly no longer a shock. He’s no Howard Baker, nor even a  Bob Corker.

Local headline: Two Republican lawmakers want to allow students at Tennessee’s public universities and colleges to carry concealed handguns. “The effort comes several years after lawmakers approved a measure that lets full-time faculty, staff and other employees to carry guns on campus.” My response then, and still, is that the only weapon I want in my classroom is the Point of View gun.


Happier morning thoughts are called to mind by the birthday of Michael Pollan, a writer I admired and corresponded with before he became famous. I’d read his A Place of My Own and presumptuously sent him a long chapter of my book in progress, which he graciously read and offered constructive comments on. Happy birthday, Michael.

Today in CoPhi, the true “greatest generation” (but of course they had their limitations, many owned other humans; greatness is relative). The American Founders were rationalists and pragmatists, true republicans who’d have recoiled from the Tennessee state legislature and probably would have withdrawn that ambiguous language about the right to bear arms if they’d known what kind of arms would be bearing and borne in 2020.

The Last Puritan was a novel by George Santayana (who warned us not to ignore history), but it was also the moniker of “Great Awakening” instigator Jonathan (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) Edwards. He thought ecstatic shows of holy delirium (“moaning, weeping,screaming, jerking, fainting”) somehow proved the divine source of all things. He was a respected scholar and preacher but he was also, as Andy said of Barney, a nut.

So was John Wesley if you ask me. He thought dreams were a landline to heaven, and inspired his early co-religionists to invest everyday life with intimations of the supernatural. Methodists have a reputation nowadays for moderation, but again these things are relative.

And George Whitefield, who popularized the “born again” phenomenon that captivated my early years and gave me night terrors (“If I should die before I wake” etc.) and later made me think I was missing an  “intense supernatural feeling”without which I’d be left behind. (My parents didn’t spout that nonsense, but some of my peers did. Wish I’d met a philosopher back then.)

Thomas Jefferson instructed his teenage nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god,” and boldly cut up the Good Book to get the supernatural bits out. The result, he said, was sublime: the Jefferson Bible, shorter and sweeter. He was a self-avowed Epicurean and materialist, and probably a Deist. He and his pals did not want to create a theocratic Christian nation.

The Framers didn’t really forget God, they remembered to affirm a big beautiful wall between church and state. That Alexander Hamilton, what a card.

Have the courage to think for yourself, and grow up. That was Kant’s message, and is Susan Neiman’s. But the market for reason is not as strong as they’d have wished.

Neiman: “Reason drives your search to make sense of the world by pushing you to ask why things are as they are. For theoretical reason, the outcome of that search becomes science; for practical reason, the outcome is a more just world.” And, “A defense of the Enlightenment is a defense of the modern world, along with all its possibilities for self-criticism and transformation. If you’re committed to Enlightenment, you’re committed to understanding the world in order to improve it.” Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age

That’s meliorism, not optimism. Take a sad world and make it better.

Mark Twain said there’s nothing more sad than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” Right, Dean Fischer?

Did you see the most-shared story in the Times yesterday? “Four ways to help your college student grow up.” One of the ways: help them figure out how to script a conversation with their “intimidating” professors. Ha! Ask my daughters how intimidating I am. Or don’t. But do come talk to me, kids. And share this article with you “helicopter,” “bulldozer,” “snowplow” and “lawn mower” parents please.

Are existential/”meaning of life” questions really so burdensome and beyond the pale of rational human thought? Kant thought so, thus limiting reason to make way for faith. But we’re testing that proposition this semester in A&P with Neuroexistentialism. Lately our discussions have been all  about free will, and the analogy of dominoes I like to share.

“Knowing that I’m a domino and knowing, in so far as is possible, what forces are acting upon me, and making choices in light of this makes it possible–in my estimation–for me to feel free enough.” Well said, Jamil.

Knowing oneself to be a “domino” of this sort would indeed enhance one’s feeling of freedom in Spinoza’s sense, i.e., leading one closer to acceptance of fate and necessity and personal impotence. But what then happens to the feeling of freedom as agency to influence events and outcomes in the world, to function as a meliorist (neither a cloudy pessimist or rosy optimist, just one who believes that things could be better and is prepared to work for that result)? If we’re dominoes and know it, we’ll better understand the tragic dimension of life. That’s worth knowing.

But we Jamesians still want to experiment with the proposal that free will might mean the sustaining (and acting upon) a thought,when I might have and might be distracted by other thoughts… and that free will in that sense might make a difference in our lives and in those of others. We could be wrong. But, what would it be better for us to believe? And here I go all pluralist again and say: I’ve decided it’s probably better for ME to believe in free will, as here explicated. But it might not be better for you, or for one or another of our friends.

Maybe Sly and the Family Stone had the best last word on this: you’re free… well at least in your mind, if you wanna be

One more thing, C.S. Lewis:

“Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.” ― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Wrong again, Clive.

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Trees, witches, and voles

February 4, 2020

Pitchers and catchers report in 8 days and counting…

Yesterday I told the Spring Honors Lecture Series audience that, as Greta Thunberg has said, “there is a tomorrow.” (See preceding post)

View image on TwitterThe fact that so many young people are demanding their tomorrows is heartening. Al Gore was right, great moral movements grow when young people join them. So I’m looking forward to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April, and I hope they are too. Unlike the Dean in the audience whose pessimism on behalf of my generation was a wet blanket tossed late onto the conversation, I’m still with Michael Chabon and Long Now, optimistic – or at least hopeful – for their (our) future. I’m betting on them (us) to finally heed the guy who speaks for the trees: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

When I said “Don’t Panic,” I wasn’t denying that we earthlings face a long-festering and self-imposed existential crisis we could have reversed by now if we’d grown the spirit of that first Earth Day over the just-past half century and reigned in the fossil fuel Oncelers. I’m just saying it almost never helps to panic in a crisis, and anyway it’s not an Alien Invasion that’s got us in this predicament. We’ve met the enemy and he is us (though it’s especially those of us who’ve enabled and submitted to the fossil Oncelers.)  We just need now to act, with calm heads and resolute hearts. Al again: “We know what we have to do. What’s wrong with doing the right thing?”

But if this happens during my commute, I will panic.

Meanwhile, the endless Iowa campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that was supposed to end yesterday is dishearteningly suspended and unresolved. Maybe that’s good, maybe this glitch will finally break Iowa’s grip on an absurdly grueling and unrepresentative process. Maybe we’ll begin to think seriously about reforming and streamlining our electoral machinery. “There are 41 delegates up for grabs” in the Hawkeye state, “a tiny fraction of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination.” So let’s move on. New Hampshire shouldn’t get to decide for the nation either. How about a national primary on a single (holi)day in June? Or later?

On the other hand, I do recall the one time I participated in a presidential caucus. I was a sophomore at Mizzou, one of maybe 75 people who showed up on caucus night at the designated middle school location. When the time came I went and sat with a handful of others who were supporting Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (I was a misguided foreign policy hawk back then, having dodged the draft which ended just the month before my eligibility). There weren’t enough of us, so we were dispersed and had to go with choice #2. Pretty sure I floated over to Jimmy Carter’s table. It felt like a charming and authentic bit of democracy in action. It’d be kinda sad to loose it. But it’s a broken system.

Today in CoPhi we’re talking witches, wiccans, puritans, and that “so American” confident certitude exhibited by Anne Hutchinson and others ever since that we get to believe whatever we damn well please because, well dammit, we’re Americans. “Spectral evidence” (dreams & visions) was enough to convict those poor women of witchcraft, and most Americans believed it. Believe it.

I get to mention my little encyclopedia entry on Roger Williams, and to note that as Europe was embracing Enlightenment and sweet reason our forebears were running desperately in the other direction.

During our founding 1600s, as giants walked in Europe and the Age of Reason dawned- Shakespeare, Galileo, Bacon, Isaac Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza- America was a primitive outlier…[promoting]the freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished.

But in fairness, this didn’t happen in America:

Image result for monty python she's a witch Image result for monty python she's a witch"

This did:

In A&P we’ll turn to Greg Caruso’s and Owen Flanagan’s Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience. “Third wave existentialism,” they call it, “defined here as a zeitgeist that involves a central preoccupation with human purpose and meaning accompanied by the anxiety that there is none.” Plus a swig of Darwin’s dangerous idea that we’re “100% animal” and subject to all the selective pressures that contribute to species extinction and in our time (as noted at the Honors College yesterday) threaten our own. We have met the enemy and he is us, right Pogo?
But we’re 100% the animal that has devised human culture, and we’d better hope it can still be our salvation. There’s still no sign of help coming to save us from ourselves. “There is not JUSTICE, there is just us.” So we need to use those oxytocin receptors Pat Churchland says we share with the prairie voles, to reward ourselves for doing the right things in this particular moment of cultural, species, and planetary duress. Go Voles!

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Cosmic philosophy

January 28, 2020

We noted in class the other day the valuable catalytic function of philosophy, often also achieved by literary adepts, as a constructive provocateur of others’ thinking. Gish Jen’s new novel The Resisters, whose total literary charms Dwight Garner seems not entirely to recognize in this review, is one I’ve been looking forward to ever since Ann Patchett began touting it as a game-changer months ago. How can I resist? It appears to be a timely addition to the environmentally-woke genre known as cli-fi, and it imagines a future in which baseball, at least, still thrives.

“The Resisters” is set in a future surveillance state known as AutoAmerica. The ice caps have melted, and much of the land is underwater. A racial and class divide has cleaved the population.

The “Netted” have jobs, plush amenities and well-zoned houses on dry land. The “Surplus,” most of whom live on houseboats in “Flotsam Towns,” have scratchy blankets, thought control and degradation. Members of this underclass have not begun to grow gills, like the buff men and women in Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” but that may not be far off.

Much of the futuristic language Jen deploys, her portmanteaus, reflects the banality of both corporate uplift (“SpritzGrams,” “WrinkErase”) and state-sponsored evil: “EnforceBots,” “ToeBombs,” “AutoWar.” There’s been an anti-immigration push called “Ship’EmBack.” There is “Total Persuasion Architecture.” I could have used a few more paragraphs about “EgoShrink,” “HomoUpgrade” and “GonadWrap.”

Into this totalitarian landscape, like a flower slipped into the barrel of a rifle, Jen inserts an almost old-fashioned baseball novel. We meet Gwen, a young southpaw with long fingers and hair dyed the color of a David Hockney swimming pool. She redoes her ponytail on the mound between pitches before launching her blistering fastball and her spookily precise off-speed stuff. Her slider and curveball combination — her slurve — is a killer…

Well I’m hooked, and I probably have my subject for the 2021 Baseball in Literature & Culture Conference (having already committed to The Brothers K this year).
Today in CoPhi it’s “Cosmic Philosophy” (and more) which can mean many different things to different people, all having to do with the perception of oneself as one with an ordered and rational universe (and with everyone and everything in it). To me, it means pondering William James’s “really vital question for us all,” which he posed in Pragmatism (Lecture 3): “What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?” He’s been gone from this world for a century and a decade now. I imagine he’d say we’re going to have to do better. An essay in the Sunday Times noted our present dearth of speculative and hopeful wonder, in the darkness where dreams of a better future should be.

Carl Sagan says that too, in the remarkable Pale Blue Dot soliloquy I never tire of. Sagan’s first little book The Cosmic Connection, which I first read back in High School, was one of the lures that brought me to philosophy’s sense of wonder at our oneness with it all. “The cosmos is within us…”

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.” The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

John Muir was another cosmic philosopher of literary genius. “When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” Gorgeous indeed.
In A&P today we turn explicitly, not for the last time this semester, to our anchoring theme of meaning and purpose. Julian Baggini closes the chapter on that subject with a short list of atheists whose lives were indisputably purposive and meaningful. He might have included Sagan…

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

And Christopher Hitchens.

“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.” Hitch-22: A Memoir

==
From the archives:
9.3.19 [LISTEN] Nice long holiday weekend, must remember this is Tuesday… and not forget Happiness, where we had a delightful conversation last time about one of my favorite films by a morally-compromised director. What are the things that make life living, for me? Let’s see…

I enjoyed how our upcoming Lyceum speaker from Vandy noted the irony of celebrating Labor Day as a prof “at a university founded by a notorious union-buster”… and couldn’t resist echoing the observation. My university’s “most prestigious scholarship is named for a Koch-funded alum whose campaign of extreme libertarian stealth has damaged our democracy.” Our Buchanan scholars, not to mention our entire faculty and staff, should all read Democracy in ChainsThen maybe we can muster a movement to remove his name, along with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s from the ROTC Building (and something like a gazillion streets in middle Tennessee). Names and symbols do matter.

BTW, The Times let me set the record straight Sunday: William James was not a “white-man’s-burden” nationalist/imperialist/racist like his friend Kipling

And on Sunday Morning, General Mattis pulled out his copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I’d wondered how he coped with working for an impossible Commander in Chief.
==
We’re talking cosmic perspective in CoPhi today. Did you see the Super Blood Wolf moon last night? Or the big eclipse, August before last? Celestial events always dwarf the petty pace of politics and pop culture, and restore – however briefly – a sense of perspective so crucial to the philosophizing imagination. Even an ordinary everyday experience in the open air of dawn can evoke that cosmic feeling, as it did for me on my morning dog-walk today (I can’t speak for the dogs, they didn’t seem particularly moved. But they do always seem to have a sane perspective on things, from a canine point of view.) The moment we stepped out into the predawn we were met by a bright and brilliant post-supermoon, joined shortly thereafter by a fireball sunrise. Look up!

“The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it’s more than just what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe. And its attributes are clear:

The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it’s not solely the province of the scientist. The cosmic perspective belongs to everyone.
The cosmic perspective is humble.
The cosmic perspective is spiritual—even redemptive—but not religious.
The cosmic perspective enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small.
The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we’re told.
The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place.
The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote, but a precious mote and, for the moment, the only home we have.
The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them.
The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and sex.
The cosmic perspective reminds us that in space, where there is no air, a flag will not wave—an indication that perhaps flag waving and space exploration do not mix.
The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.

At least once a week, if not once a day, we might each ponder what cosmic truths lie undiscovered before us, perhaps awaiting the arrival of a clever thinker, an ingenious experiment, or an innovative space mission to reveal them. We might further ponder how those discoveries may one day transform life on Earth.

Absent such curiosity, we are no different from the provincial farmer who expresses no need to venture beyond the county line, because his forty acres meet all his needs. Yet if all our predecessors had felt that way, the farmer would instead be a cave dweller, chasing down his dinner with a stick and a rock.

During our brief stay on planet Earth, we owe ourselves and our descendants the opportunity to explore—in part because it’s fun to do. But there’s a far nobler reason. The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their low contracted prejudices. And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment—until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace the cosmic perspective.” Neil deGrasse Tyson

And, the cosmic perspective dismisses all narrow parochialism. The Tennessee eclipse? Really?

In Nashville’s sky, a ring of fire (nyt)…
==
Originally published August 21, 2017
====
[Posted just after the solar eclipse:]
…Weren’t you happy to experience and share that cosmic diversion last Monday? But that gets it backwards. Politics, impactful though it is on lives and prospects, is the diversion. We need to remember that we’re standing on a planet that’s evolving, and revolving, etc. We need to retain a cosmic perspective. Then, we’ll not be so inclined to discount the importance of our happiness.

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

Thus spake my philosophical spirit-guide James, a little over a century ago. But if that’s too current, you can go back to Aristotle. “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” 


But the issue of our existence is never settled by the citing of authorities, no matter how lustrous. We have to work it out for ourselves, find a way to flourish in personal terms while also remaining responsibly committed to the welfare of our peers and the survival of our species. No simple task, but there’s none more urgent.


That sounds almost grim, in an existentialist sort of way. “You will never be happy,” said Camus, “if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”


Well, I disagree. That’s too pessimistic, too Schopenhaurian.

“What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. Much would have been gained if, through timely advice and instruction, young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.”

If that’s the course you signed on for, this one will disappoint. The world does have a great deal to offer. It has a world. We get to live here. We’re the lucky ones who got to live at all, who’ll get to be happy if we apply ourselves just a bit to the question of how to do it.


 That, anyhow, is our working hypothesis. It makes me happy to begin working it out again. We’ll see if we can verify the SoL’s 60-second secrets, and its preference for eudaimonia.


There’s nothing more fun, and often funny, that the pursuit of happiness.

Image result for happiness cartoons new yorker

Image result for happiness cartoons new yorker  Image result for happiness cartoons new yorker

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Opening Day!

January 21, 2020

Or Opening Deja-vu, all over again. Like last time, and the time before, and the time before that, but also different. [Fall 2019]

Another fresh start, a blank slate, a return to that form of life we call academia and philosophia – call it what you will, the first day of a new semester is an always-welcome recurrence I’m happy to affirm. I say yes to the challenge of introducing the next generation to this odd but essential practice of mature reflection on behalf of our adolescent species. The break was actually a little long, in some ways, though the break from that congested commute down I-24 to the ‘boro was (as always) a time-giving, anxiety-relieving happy respite.

We’ll do our usual Opening Day round of introductions: Who are you? Why are you here? I always encourage students to be creatively and playfully thoughtful with their responses to those questions, and there’s usually a small handful of creatively playful responses mixed in with the dull literal Joe (“Just the facts, M’am”) Fridays. “I’m Bill, I’m in concrete management, I’m here for the GenEd credit…” Thanks, Bill. Anybody given any thought to who you are independent of your academic and career aspirations, why you’re living this life, in this place, with these goals and intentions?

Philosophers wonder why there’s something rather than nothing, a universe where there might (we suppose) have been nought at all. Beyond that, as William James said, there’s a mystery as to the existence of every particular in its very particularity. Today begins the worthy task of getting more of my young charges to grasp and grapple with (or at least acknowledge and value) that mystery, and grow from the encounter.

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PEDs & NCAA

December 4, 2019

It’s another exam day, followed by a requested meeting with a “Leisure & Sport Management” class from the Department of Health and Human Performance. At my suggestion they’ve read Michael Sandel’s The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering

“The descent of sport into spectacle is not unique to the age of genetic engineering. But it illustrates how performance-enhancing technologies, genetic or otherwise, can erode the part of athletic and artistic performance that celebrates natural talents and gifts.”

We’ll discuss it, as well as some of the questions their professor has directed them to research:

1. Which philosophical view is most commonly used in Western culture? i.e. Aristotle,
Locke, Kant. Hmm. I’m not sure western culture as we know it today commonly uses any philosophical view consistently. Utilitarianism is probably as common as any.

a. Which is most commonly used in sport? Another ‘hmm’… Nietzschean will to power, “what doesn’t kill me” etc.?

2. Would an Aristotelian view on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in the NCAA
be appropriate? Pretty sure Aristotle would oppose PEDs in amateur (and even our nominally amateur) collegiate athletic programs, as compromising the official commitment to the pursuit of personal and team excellence achieved on fair and level playing fields. Appropriate, yes indeed.


3. Can you give us a detailed description of an autonomous person? In Kantian terms, an autonomous person acts consistently to follow an imperative to will what is universalizable for all moral agents. This is typically construed as an absolutist approach  which admits no exceptions to rigid rules like “Do not lie.” I’d qualify that with the phrase “all else being equal,” thus admitting the possibility of mitigating and un-equalizing circumstances — such as the knowledge that your honesty in the wrong context, as for instance when responding  to Nazis, may produce grievous harm to innocent persons. 


More broadly, autonomous people always try to act in principled and rational ways to uphold standards of enlightened decency. They are reflective, deliberate, intentional, and un-deferential to authority, when said authority is perceived to be irrational or unprincipled.  

4. Is it ethical to manipulate human nature to achieve biological perfection? Neither ethical nor prudent nor practical.

Safety:
1. Does an organization have an ethical responsibility to legislate morality? Well, an organization of constitutionally legitimated legislators has an obligation to legislate on all matters of the public interest. But the phrase “legislate morality” is fraught with overtones of excessively prescriptive moralism that oversteps its bounds and threatens to undermine personal liberty. 

A. Legislate safety? Yes

2. Should the safety of an individual outweigh their autonomy? Insofar as we value both, we must not allow either one to supplant the other.


3. What is the age in which an individual cognitively can make informed decisions? Not sure what the latest neuro-psychological research says about that, but we should expect individuals to accept responsibility for making informed decisions from the onset of adulthood. Though many don’t act like it, I’d put that at eighteen.

Philosophical:
1. Are student athletes mature enough cognitively to take PED’s? I don’t see this as an issue of maturity, but of integrity and sportsmanship.* In those terms, though, it’s immature of any athlete to seek illicit advantage in competition via banned substances-and doubly so if it results in a loss of eligibility and, more important, integrity. (“The penalty for a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug (PED) is strict and automatic: student-athletes lose one full year of eligibility for the first offense (25 percent of their total eligibility) and are withheld from competition for 365 days from the date of the test.” NCAA.org

*On the other hand, thinking again of Kant, maturity is in play here: the maturity, and the courage, to think for oneself and do the right thing (as opposed to the thing one feels pressured to do). “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.” Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)

2. Is it ethical to punish coaches who might have athletes that use PED’s? Yes. Not just ethical, but compelling.


3. Should the Philosophical side of this argument outweigh the physiological side of this
argument? Philosophers don’t separate “the philosophical side” from everything else. The rationally-determined philosophical position applies to all “sides” of an ethical issue.


Conclusion:
1. Based on your knowledge of this issue, would you support the NCAA allowing student
athletes to use performance enhancing drugs if they are regulated? No, except in the case of specific PEDs deemed appropriate and approved for all NCAA athletes, and that do not mask or obviate an athlete’s “gifted” (Sandel’s term) natural abilities.


Bottom line, for me: the NCAA has already, long since, gone way too far in professionalizing collegiate athletics. I vote NO on PEDs.

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“Should I be a stoic instead?”

December 3, 2019

That’s the title of the last chapter in How to be an Epicurean.


Short answer: “If you find the Stoic outlook more fitting to your own  beliefs and experiences than the Epicurean,” go for it. But if you’re reluctant to view the emotions that we associate with pleasure and enjoyment–excitement, passion, hope, triumph, compassion…–as “diseases of the soul,” you might want further to explore the Epicurean way.

“To stifle emotions is to lose awareness of the world and engagement with it,” and while stoic stifling has been exaggerated in the Spock-like caricature of Vulcanic detachment (“my people consider emotion a kind of madness” etc.), it’s true that Stoics tend to be more buttoned-down and guarded, less prone to expressive display and thus less likely to embrace ranges of enjoyment the Epicurean thinks make life worth living.

“The true Stoic” is a determinist and fatalist who “does not grieve over any death… the laws of nature make it inevitable that some children die of leukemia,” that lunatics with guns will kill, and so on. The Epicurean is a liberal free willist who grieves for tragic death, which is always tragic when it comes too soon. But the Epicurean does not fear the death in due course which awaits us all.

A useful chart (p.265) marks the broad differences between Stoics and Epicureans, in various categories like ontology, causality, orientation, family, suicide, education… Bottom line: Stoic happiness is freedom from all emotional disturbances, while for the Epicurean it’s freedom from anxiety and fear. This is more than a matter of tone and framing, I think. It highlights a fundamental difference of emphasis reflected in the latter’s more open and receptive zest for living.

“Zest” is one of William James’s favorite words, and Bertrand Russell’s: two modern Epicureans, in a loose non-card carrying sense of the word (and in contrast to the hyper-aestheticized “epicure”).

Russell, in chapter eleven of The Conquest of Happiness (1930), says zest is “the most universal and distinctive mark of happy men.” If you’ve got it, you really enjoy your lunch and don’t merely endure it for the sake of your health and survival. “What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life.” Enjoying lunch is one the things that make life worth living.

In “Is Life Worth Living?” (1896) James says “sufferings and hardships do not abate the love of life, they seem on the contrary to give it a keener zest.” And,

“These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

I can think of no better last words for a course called The Philosophy of Happiness, and no better destination for today than a garden in the sun-unless it’s a green field of the mind. (Giamatti)

 

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