Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Dennett’

Infallible like the Pope

October 6, 2012

You cannot call that an infield fly!” But the umpire can. Blown calls are part of the game, and part of life.

Would I be so “philosophical” if the call had gone against my team? Of course not.

“You can’t do that!” But the umpire can. He’s “infallible.” Like the Pope.

And as Dan Dennett has written, having a team can be meaningful and gratifying (or galling, Braves fans?) if you don’t forget it’s only a game.

I am a Red Sox fan, simply because I grew up in the Boston area and have happy memories of Ted Williams, Jimmy Piersall, Carl Yastrzemski, Pudge Fisk, and Wade Boggs, among others. My allegiance to the Red Sox is enthusiastic, but cheerfully arbitrary and undeluded. The Red Sox aren’t my team because they are, in fact, the Best; they are the Best (in my eyes) because they are my team.

Same here. I grew up in the St. Louis area and have happy memories of Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, and Mike Shannon, among others. The Cards went all the way last year as a wildcard, if they do it again it’ll be even wilder. 12 in ’12! So, would they then be the “best”? Yes. Just not on paper.

That says something about paper, just as blown calls show something about Popes, imperfection, and human fallibility. You don’t have to be the absolute best to play the game, or to win.

What really matters about the game, as Mr. Rice said, is how you play it. And just for the record: with or without that blown call, Atlanta did not play it well last night.

Eyes opened wider, mindlessly

October 2, 2012

Daniel Dennett is clear-sighted about Darwin’s big idea, the literally “mindless” process of evolution by natural selection. Mindless doesn’t mean ignorant or foolish, though in this context it does exclude the kind of purposive intelligence that crafts clocks and watches. It’s an ingeniously clever idea, and yet blindingly obvious on reflection. “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that,” said Darwin’s self-deprecating bulldog advocate and Dennett-precursor Huxley.

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

We’ll look more closely at Darwin soon, but today he’s crowding into CoPhi early to help us understand the astonishingly complex (and yet unforesighted) design of eyes and other marvels of organic nature. He and his doppelganger, our contemporary Professor Dennett.

Take the development of the eye, which has been one of the favorite challenges of creationists. How on earth, they ask, could that engineering marvel be produced by a series of small, unplanned steps? Only an intelligent designer could have created such a brilliant arrangement of a shape-shifting lens, an aperture-adjusting iris, a light-sensitive image surface of exquisite sensitivity, all housed in a sphere that can shift its aim in a hundredth of a second and send megabytes of information to the visual cortex every second for years on end.

But as we learn more and more about the history of the genes involved, and how they work – all the way back to their predecessor genes in the sightless bacteria from which multicelled animals evolved more than a half-billion years ago – we can begin to tell the story of how photosensitive spots gradually turned into light-sensitive craters that could detect the rough direction from which light came, and then gradually acquired their lenses, improving their information-gathering capacities all the while.

We can’t yet say what all the details of this process were, but real eyes representative of all the intermediate stages can be found, dotted around the animal kingdom, and we have detailed computer models to demonstrate that the creative process works just as the theory says.

All it takes is a rare accident that gives one lucky animal a mutation that improves its vision over that of its siblings; if this helps it have more offspring than its rivals, this gives evolution an opportunity to raise the bar and ratchet up the design of the eye by one mindless step. And since these lucky improvements accumulate – this was Darwin’s insight – eyes can automatically get better and better and better, without any intelligent designer.

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye’s rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.

Brilliant imperfection is the give-away. Dennett’s pal Dawkins is good at explaining eye-evolution too, as seen in yesterday’s post and in The Magic of Reality and (through younger eyes) on stage. Dawkins explains design

[BTW: In EEA yesterday Morgan was wondering how to explain to her 11-year old why and how it is that CO2 is bad for trees. There are good and straigtforward kid-friendly explanations for that too. Global warming for kids…]

In another context, and a propos of another group discussion today, Bertrand Russell was also struck by the significance of  imperfection.

 When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists? Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending — something dead, cold, and lifeless.

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.

Other brilliantly imperfect things. Like you and me and the wonderful worlds of the stars and the cells. Just as it says in the window at Vandy’s Stevenson Science Center: “From atoms to cosmos, reaching ever into mystery.” And just as my old evolutionist friend Dr. Curtis said: this is how we keep going.


November 25, 2010

“Gratitude is a bridge to your positive future.” [Thank Who Very MuchThank Goodness...Thank Epic Existence]

“If given the opportunity to live your life over and over again ad infinitum, forced to go through all of the pain and the grief of existence, would you be overcome with despair? Or would you fall to your knees in gratitude?”

That question changed philosopher Robert Solomon‘s life.

One can take one’s life and its advantages for granted, but how much better it is to acknowledge not only those advantages but one’s gratitude for them.

…it involves an admission of our vulnerability and our dependence on other people. The Psychology of Gratitude

Solomon collapsed and died of pulmonary hypertension on January 2, 2007 while changing planes at Zurich airport.

Happy Thanksgiving.

avoid boring people

November 10, 2010

That was the ambiguous title of Double Helix co-discoverer Jim Watson’s book, and it’s also Jaron Lanier’s caution in today’s section of reading in FoL. If we allow ourselves to be assimilated by our software designs and the computing culture they’re locking in, that’s exactly what we’ll be. But the good news is, we’ll also be too flattened and objectified to notice.

As he promised early on, his manifesto is getting a bit cheerier near the end. He now admits that cybernetic totalism is useful for some purposes of understanding. He still wants to keep it out of our actual engineering designs.

He’d rather think of us as meaning-makers, and of our gadgets as mere tools; but he also sees the utility of computationalism, not as a culturally-pervasive  ideology but as a realistic model of the brain (more precisely, of brain-based personhood). It, and we, have been product-tested and honed by “a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.” That’s Lanier’s creation story, maybe the one naturalistic account of birdsong and Shakespeare worth considering.

But first he has to get in another swipe at narrow computationalism, akin to the  “Logical Positivism” we thought was moribund. Apparently it’s hot again, in  Silicon Valley (and at MIT and Tufts). With tons of data hovering in the Cloud, just waiting to verify our sentences, the neo-Positivists say, human subjectivity is unnecessary.

Lanier, we already saw, wants to pin a big scarlet  “Z” (for Zombie) on Dan Dennett and his old collaborator Douglas “Strange Loop” Hofstadter for such thinking. Thing is, if they’re right we’re all zombies. It’d be the end of consciousness as we thought we knew it, and we’d feel fine. We’d be as thoughtful and creative and un-blood-lustful as we ever were.

And as loopy, musically and otherwise: look at Andrew Bird‘s amazing 1-man band at TED.

But Lanier is sure they can’t be right. He rejects the Turing test criterion of personhood. When we start finding ourselves indistinguishable from our gadgets “we make ourselves dull.” But on the other hand, a master storyteller like Richard Powers can make a Turing scenario very lively indeed. Read Galatea 2.2, a hugely clever updating of the Pygmalion (“My Fair Lady”) story, if you doubt it. (Dennett is a fan.) Modern sculptors beware: even if it walks and talks like a lady it may still be hardware.

It’s a very big deal to Lanier that our scanners can read faces now. Privacy may be out the window for good. Will anyone look up from their screens long enough to notice?

Finally, a couple of positively-tinged  speculations from Lanier:

Swearing is rooted in sniffing, the “old factory” olfactory system. Who knew? Probably not Artoo, “it would take a lot of wires to address all those entries in the mental smell dictionary.” Or the metal one?

And, automatic language translation may get good enough to begin breaking down ancient nationalistic hostilities. The universal translator is not just a pipe dream, we’re getting closer. But if the machines hiccup they could start a major conflagration, too. Remember Douglas Adams’ inter-galactic misunderstanding between the Vl’hurgs and the G’gugvunts triggered by a malfunctioning Babel Fish (but resolved by a miscalculation of scale and swallowed by a canine)? So, maybe you don’t want to stick it in your ear.

Finally, Lanier the humanist computer geek is worried about the future of language and literature as the Cloud expands. But if he was right about the “sexual display” component of good words, we shouldn’t have to worry. Persons seeking mates will never be entirely boring. And Wikipedia is still growing, but it’s nowhere near Borges’ Library of  Babel. Is it?

the “point”

September 17, 2010

What’s the point of philosophers, Richard Dawkins? Getting the punctuation right, for one. Dan Dennett explains why “quotation marks” are so important.  (Consider, for example, premise #1 of the problem of evil: “God” is omnipotent etc.)

Here’s everything you’ll ever want to know about Gottlob Frege‘s “Use-Mention” distinction. Are you listening, Karen Armstrong (History of God) and Robert Wright (Evolution of God)?

John Lennon almost got it right: “God” is a concept…

“Future” begins

August 30, 2010

I have to say it at least once: The future is now.

The “Future of Life” course, that is. It starts today. Trying to get a jump-start, I’ve emailed students (though Beloit says the “1st Yrs,” the Class of 2014— born in 1992!– don’t really do email anymore) and asked them to begin pondering a statement from William James in his Pragmatism, at the end of his third lecture:

The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights. To shift the emphasis in this way means that philosophic questions will fall to be treated by minds of a less abstractionist type than heretofore, minds more scientific and individualistic in their tone yet not irreligious either. It will be an alteration in ‘the seat of authority’ that reminds one almost of the protestant reformation. And as, to papal minds, protestantism has often seemed a mere mess of anarchy and confusion, such, no doubt, will pragmatism often seem to ultra-rationalist minds in philosophy. It will seem so much sheer trash, philosophically. But life wags on, all the same, and compasses its ends, in protestant countries. I venture to think that philosophic protestantism will compass a not dissimilar prosperity. Gutenberg etext

I’ve asked my still-future students (or the ones who still read email, anyhow): Do you agree with James? Wherein lies the “vitality,” for you? Or is the future a black box any normally-constituted human should expect to have difficulty imagining or caring about? What would it mean, really to care about it? How would, or how does, caring impact your choices and actions?

That’s part of what our course will be about. “Future” and “life” both sprawl in an almost untameable way, of course, so we’ll have plenty of parsing to do as we go along. That means even more basic, orienting questions: Is the future all about me, or about us, at all? Or is it all about successors to whom our relation is murky? Should we consider our main obligation to be to ourselves as individuals, to our (contingent) historical epoch, to our wider communities, our DNA, the species, the planet, the carboniferous form of life, or— as the late Carl Sagan said– to the very cosmos, “ancient and vast” and ongoing, itself?

So many questions. We’ll begin looking for answers with a nod to Dan Dennett, who pointed out that we are the beneficiaries of generations of people who cared about us while knowing they’d never meet us, and with a forward-looking glance backward from 19th century futurist Edward Bellamy (“Looking Backward“). How easy it is to get details wrong, but how exciting to dream of real progress in subduing the inherited scourges– including economic and political as well as biological plagues– of the past.

Then, Sagan’s calendar and the Long Now Foundation’s clock (“now“),’s “Third Culture” crowd, Jaron Lanier, Bill McKibben, Richard Powers,  maybe E.O. Wilson and Aubrey de Grey too.

So many possibilities, in the great open-ended pluralistic universe. I talked about some of them on the radio back in the Spring, when the future seemed so far off.

But first, it being the first day, we’ll introduce ourselves. I’m tired of being “Dr. Phil,” maybe I’ll pass along Older Daughter’s suggestion that, in this class at least, I become “Phil of the future.”


March 16, 2010

A nice barely-planned symmetry: we begin the second half of our semester in A&S with  Carl Sagan, who also began the first.

In Demon-haunted world the “elegant and witty” exobiologist again implores us to light a candle and neither curse nor fear the darkness. Cursing and fearing are inveterate bad habits of our species, going back to St. Paul’s “high places” and beyond. How delightfully, wickedly ironic, that “demon” means “knowledge”… and that women have so frequently been demonized in our sexually repressed, male-dominated society. And, how appalling that more than half of Americans tell pollsters they “believe” in the Devil’s existence. They should read the Devil’s Dictionary: FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

In the Gifford lectures that became Varieties of Scientific Experience we’re reminded it’s very easy to call people who believe in a different kind of god atheists, and in fact anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do. Sagan brings the same perspective to bear in sifting the differences among Abrahamic believers as he does when comparing ours to the gaze of an extra-terrestrial. The fundamental differences among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are trivial compared to their similarities.But those trivial differences, comic though they are (as with the naive Western view of God as an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard) have been deadly. Maybe it’s time to give Spinoza’s and Einstein’s God a hearing.

Sagan: Certainly it is insufficient to say “I believe in that sort of god because that’s what I was told when I was young”… We cannot depend entirely upon what people say. We have to look at the evidence, or else admit that we’re just not interested in trying to defend rational beliefs.

There are a few arguments Rebecca Goldstein missed here. The argument from atomic combinations and the argument from the suspension of the world fail, but they try.

Is Sagan being impertinent when he asks why God wouldn’t have engraved the Ten Commandments (say) on the Moon?

Also in today’s reading: an excerpt from John Updike’s Roger’s Version (Updike was a theist, btw), J.L. Mackie’s Miracle of Theism, Michael Shermer’s “Genesis Revisited,” A.J. Ayer’s weird oxygen-deprivation account of “what I saw when I was dead” (not God), and Dan Dennett’s more sensible (and grateful) reflections on his own near-death experience in “Thank Goodness!”

[NOTE to A&S students: the syllabus got ahead of itself. For Thursday read thru the next Dennett piece, “A Working Definition of Religion”]

Asian spirit

February 11, 2010

It’s misleading to say that there’s a strong tradition of doubting God in Asian philosophy, since that would imply a strong antecedent tradition of not doubting God. It may be difficult for westerners to wrap themselves around the idea of these ancient traditions, exempt from the gaze and regulation of God or Gods… or the idea of godless traditions whose greatest aspiration is to leave the world behind, on a road to nowhere. “Release,” renunciation, and no regrets? How does that work, training oneself out of humanness while at the same time dissolving into the wide unhuman universe? How does a drop rejoin the ocean without remorse or fear?

The Carvaka, the first doubters we know about, seemed too eager to leave and too quick to judge the uncivilized ignorant fools who imagine that spirit is something different from body. I happen to share their view that spirit cannot hang from nowhere, and I see the point of  the Stoics’ imperative to cultivate an attitude of tranquil acceptance. But I’m not thrilled about it. Honestly, I’d rather stay a little longer. Or have somewhere to go. Then again, I’ve long resonated to Emerson‘s very similar statement: “Other worldthere is no other world. God is one and omnipresent ; here or nowhere is the whole fact.”

Our challenge: if the whole fact excludes God from our world, can we still be as sanguine about it as the Carvaka? Or as “spiritual” as the Buddha? We should in any case reject the nihilism of proclaiming that no morality could have any meaning because the whole system [has] no purpose. Pleasure is a fine goal, but it’s not the only good one. Bertrand Russell was right to repudiate this kind of thinking when he pooh-poohed the whole notion that an ultimately-pointless universe condemns us to meaningless lives. And he was right, in Conquest of Happiness, to advise lives full of outward interest. We should turn our attention away from the end and from self-absorption, to the intrinsically meaningful persons, places, and things whose potential meanings are inexhaustible. (BTW: if you’re at war with the self, aren’t you still self-absorbed?)

A materialist (or Philip Pullman fan) has to love the Jains‘ materialistic version of karma, a fine dust of atoms that gets on your jiva, your spirit, and keeps your cycle of birth and re-birth spinning. It’s a reminder that spirit can lodge in and on matter, and in fact it does. Recall William James, on this: “To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after… That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.” Enough said, from my perspective.

The Buddha (the original one, Siddhartha) sought freedom and enlightenment in the forest (where we hung our “Home Sweet Home” sign), and found “blissful clarity” there under the Bodhi tree, waking at once to the ubiquity of  suffering and the possibility of rightly seeing (the first step on the 8-fold path). He saw beyond the rupture between our feelings and desires and the  vast, unresponsive universe. What did the Buddha see? Not much. No God, no karma (or any other universal justice), no dependence on community for meaning… He invited us to use our human consciousness to realize that we are not a part of nature, we are all of nature. But this is not pantheism, the whole show is too ephemeral. The point is that there are no definite boundaries between our particular fields of experience and the totality of them all. Looking to belong to something larger than yourself? Here you go. It’s another secular version of the trans-end-dance.

Buddha claimed to see nothing, literally nothing in the place where others imagined they saw a substantial ego. Our self-referential feelings exist, as sensations– but not as coherent, enduring, loci of meaningful existence. Can this be true? Granted, there’s no little homunculus-doppelganger of you at your control-switch. But does it follow that, where selfhood is concerned, there really is no there there? Can’t we accept an alternative definition of “self” that dispenses with such naive literalism about consciousness, but still acknowledges an organizing subjectivity whose memories and plans and dreams converge on a stable singular identity and “a name I call myself”? A self that’s as real as the time and space it chooses to attend to, no more and no less? Well, I hope so. I’ve certainly invested a lot of words in the project of defending the self— and not just mine.

Robert Thurman says Buddha had a humanizing and naturalizing influence on Hinduism, and on us: we can all be the Buddha.* (Or,  at least more compassionate TEDsters.) Worldly, war-mongering energies were diverted to paradoxically-personal pursuits:  when people are responsible for their own salvation, a great deal of their time and effort is required. That’s time not spent making public mischief, but it’s also “me”-time, isn’t it?

Finally, Confucius left God out of it, and heaven. We don’t know yet how to serve men… We don’t know yet about life… Originally, Taoism was as atheistic as Buddhism and Confucianism before the rise of Asian superstition and “social magic,” the real effect that human beings can feel from their community and its emblematic leaders.

My favorite Asian naturalist is the autodidact Wang Ch’ung, who educated himself while standing in bookstores. Me too.

“If the heavens had produced creatures on purpose, they ought to have taught them to love each other, and not to prey upon and destroy one another.” Looks like we’re going to have to teach ourselves. See you at Borders. (My birthday card just arrived.)

*Robert Thurman, like me, likes the Beatles. Like a good Buddhist, he also likes the Stones.

[Rami on “offense“… Hecht on suicide]

Thank goodness

November 26, 2009

Here’s* gratitude for you. Thank Dan Dennett.

*And here, and here. Happy Thanksgiving!

James bio – 10

November 13, 2009

wj 1899Robert Louis Stevenson, James’s favorite author, dies as this week’s installment begins. Stevenson is only 44. And, it so happens, today is Stevenson’s birthday.

It’s the mid-’90s, James is lending financial and moral support to the brilliant but erratic philosopher “Charley” Peirce, who would later bite the hand that fed him by refusing James’s noblesse in crediting him with inventing pragmatism.

He’s also reflecting on the allegedly-false happiness of alcoholic intoxication, which ravaged his brother. Better to “replace the ideal of drinking with the ideal of having a constitution in perfect health,” an example of Spinozistic positive psychology. Stick to the nitrous, when you want to experiment with an expanded yea-saying consciousness.

“Alcoholics Anonymous” makes extensive practical use of Jamesian aids to learning and personal reform. “When AA invokes a ‘higher power,’ it does not mean Jehovah; it means a power higher than oneself.  A small community of two or three will do nicely.” No need to bring in supernatural forces. We’ll all get by with a little help from our friends.

The naturalistic bent of James’s curiosity is reflected in his slight shift, around this time, away from studies of abnormal psych and the paranormal and towards varieties of religious experience. Richardson makes more of this, though, than he should. Religious experiences may be natural for human beings, but some of the case studies of conversion and “sick souls” James presents in Varieties are as “abnormal” as anything he’d encountered as a student of clinical psychology, and are not prime examples of what Spinoza must have meant when he advised us to re-frame our aversions in terms of positive goods.

James still insists that we not ignore the negative side of life. We must address ourselves to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them in contrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness. Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, “Hurrah for the Universe!—God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.” Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view…

For himself, though, life is good. “As William James turned fifty-three, in January 1895, his life was rich and full… He was happily, solidly married– though he contracted a mad crush on every other woman he met.” Mid-life can be treacherous. “I have been happy, happy HAPPY!” he wrote Mrs. James, after meeting one of his crushes.

In April ’95 James delivered a talk to the Harvard YMCA called “Is Life Worth Living?” It included this distinctively-Jamesian statement about personal subjectivity:

The deepest thing in our nature in this binnenleben, this dumb region of the heart in which we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears. As through the cracks and crannies of subterranean caverns the earth’s bosom exudes its waters, which then form the fountain-heads of springs, so in these crepuscular depths of personality the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise. Here is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.

Another noteworthy publication from this period: “The Gospel of Relaxation,” in which James issues the best pedagogical advice I’ve ever received:  The advice I should give to most teachers would be in the words of one who is herself an admirable teacher. Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall be always on tap: then in the class-room trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care.

And there’s good advice here for students, too: If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently.

Will to Believe,” maybe James’s most famous essay, comes in 1896. Here he tackles that delicious enfant terrible [William Kingdon] Clifford, who wrote: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…. It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

James: Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.

“William James at fifty-five seemed a man of unlimited energy.”  But, he wrote a friend, there’s just too much for an academic to read. “One lives on an inclined plane of hopes as regards reading, on which like the snail of mental arithmetic one slips back more in 24 hours than one gains.” Tell me about it.
James finally has an experience of the sort he’d always hungered for, one that  he would characterize as vaguely mystical though not entirely instructive. He called it his Walpurgisnacht, an extraordinary experience of “spiritual alertness” on a magnificent starry night after days of strenuous hiking. Of course it was an experience that, by the very terms of its mystical ineffability, he literally could not speak of in any detail. But, he cryptically said, “I now know what a poet is.”
On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (discussed in last week‘s post) is published in 1898. “The truth is too great for any one actual mind… The facts and worths of life need many cognizers to take them in. There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. The practical consequence of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality.”
Democracy, as we know, does not always evince so great a respect for the individuality of other peoples and nations. The Phillippines crisis of 1899 provoked James’s ire. he saw American policy as naked imperialism, “crushing out the sacredest thing in this great human world– the attempt of a people long enslaved to attain to the possession of itself… to be free.” He complains bitterly:  “The stars and stripes are now a lying rag.” Sound familiar?
As the fin de siecle approaches there are troubling signs of health challenges ahead. Ever since his Walpurgisnacht he’s noticed “queer cardiac symptoms,” a “valvular insufficiency”… the sort of thing Daniel Dennett recently had occasion to “thank goodness” for rescuing him from. But James was born too soon to enjoy the opportunity of that particular form of rescue.