Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Michael Hecht’

Gentle bliss & an uplifting dream

September 10, 2012

We’re talking Epicurus (among others, Lord knows) today in CoPhi. Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.

For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment.

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, he said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett aired yesterday again. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

The dream of restorative environmentalism growing from the grassroots also continues in EEA today. We begin with Rachel Carson’s Silent SpringIt’s serial publication in 1962 was greeted by one reader with the claim that “we can live without birds and animals” but not without business.

Many of our fellow Americans still believe, with Mr. Mitt, that corporations really are people too. Not just legally-contrived “persons,” but individuals with rights and dignity and grace and a capacity for bliss in their own right. Dream on.

Stay creative

September 7, 2012

It was High School Parents Night last night. This was tacked to the locker of a kid for & from whom I predict great things:

Why 33, and why these items precisely? Not important. What’s important is this youngster’s public intention (shared by many many others, a quick web scan reveals) to pursue what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls a “graceful-life philosophy.” Such seekers “don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” They’re the ones who have the most fun, finish the most somethings, and learn to enjoy not just arriving at a destination but getting there. They write, they move, they laugh, they learn, they collaborate (#15). They find the nectar in the journey. Aristotle would say they’re happy.

The redoubtable quiz that just won’t go away

January 23, 2012

The last two classes finally get their crack at Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt Quiz today, and an introduction to Doubt. JMH is an atheist of the friendly variety, noting that while belief-centered religion is parasitic on a culture of doubt and that doubt is in fact older than most faiths, “faith can be a wonderful thing.” You’ll not get that concession out of most of the so-called New Atheists, or their 19th century precursors (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche,…).

JMH, a first-rate historian/philosopher/poet (maybe the one and only to wear all those hats with flair, in our day) is a frequent contributor to the Best American Poetry blog. She did a terrific interview with Krista Tippett on the program formerly known as “Speaking of Faith” (which became Being in large part because the host was so impressed by Hecht’s presentation, and came to realize that there’s far more to be said of heaven and earth than is dreamt of by people of faith alone.

JMH discerns seven historically-salient categories of doubt: science, nontheistic religion (eg Buddhism), cosmopolitanism, morally indignant repudiation of the world’s suffering and injustices, “graceful-life philosophies” (eg Epicureanism-“we don’t need answers or stuff”), philosophical skepticism (whether contrived like Descartes’ or sincere like Montaigne’s and Socrates’), and finally “the doubt of the ardent believer” (like Jesus).

Now, about that quiz: There have already been several interesting comments about the exercise, and a few expressions of surprise and exasperation. One stumbling block I’ve noticed is the reluctance most of us have, admirably, to declaring an unequivocal response to questions about which nobody can know the absolute and incorrigibly correct answer. “Not sure” is sane and circumspect, but remember that the quiz is simply asking what you know about your own mind and heart at this very moment of reflection. You’re not required to claim omniscience or certainty about the universe.

Interpreted in that light, I find myself capable of declaring a solid yes or no to most of the questions, and of pretty much skipping the “not sure” category entirely. That is, I know what I think at this moment about these matters. I don’t know that I’m right. Neither do you, right?

People often demur, when asked if they consider themselves atheists, on the grounds that it sounds too confident and cocky to say they don’t believe in a transcendent/supernatural creator God… even if they really don’t. But why should it seem any more cocky to say “I don’t believe X” than to say “I do,” when it’s already been conceded all around  that nobody-but-nobody knows for sure? If we’re really flinging open the closet doors and inviting everyone into the fresh air and honest sunshine of truthfulness, it should not. No double-standards need apply.

So maybe it’s easier to take the quiz if you silently mouthe the qualifier “but I could be mistaken” after each  response? As an instinctive fallibilist (as opposed to either fideist or dogmatist) I always thought that went without saying, but say it if it helps.

Here’s a small unscientific sampling of what others have said about the quiz so far:

  • We collectively concluded that when it comes to religion, there will always be a range of opinions and beliefs regarding religion, and that one quiz could not necessarily determine where you stand with your religion.
  • The Doubt quiz told me that I’m either an agnostic or some hybrid atheist thing…I’m pretty sure I can decide for myself. We all agreed that the wording was tricky and that the quiz does not accurately determine what or how one doubts in entirety.
  • I heard a lot of talk about the quiz in class today and some different perspectives, some agreeing with and some disagreeing with the results of the quiz. For me, the quiz was simple. I’m a Christian, which led all of my answers to be a solid “yes.” Quite appropriately, the quiz labeled me “a Believer.”
  • The Doubt quiz says I’m agnostic. From what I’ve heard about it agnostics think that the knowledge of God is unobtainable and so we shouldn’t bother trying to figure it out. I don’t think any knowledge is unobtainable, we just haven’t found it yet, so I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic. I also wouldn’t call myself an atheist, though I used to be one. I don’t believe in any organized religion but I also don’t believe that reality just happened. Everything the way it is, especially as it is related to us, just seems too perfect to be totally random.
  • I also answered “No” to all the questions on the quiz. A few of them were very open to interpretation, like #10. Which reality are we talking about? The reality of how I feel about something, or the reality of the object that I have feelings about? And #13 was so loaded with junk that I answered “No” just on principle 😉
  • 1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life? No. So far, none of the gods (way over 10,000 and counting) have ever demonstrated any credible evidence for their existence 
outside of human personal conviction or faith, both of which are plagued by inconsistency and incoherence. That fact, compounded by each and every religion’s exclusive, incompatible claims about the divine, makes accepting Pascal’s Wager the beginning of a more extensive problem—not the solution. (See all of D’s responses here… and see William James’s responses to his quiz, way back in the day, here.

Donald Hall’s window

January 21, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk softly & carry a big philosophy club

January 19, 2012

This sign popped up all over campus yesterday, including here in front of my building.

The philosophy club is already laying plans to respond with

Philosophy Study

& Free Food

for thought

They usually meet on Thursdays at 5 in JUB 304, for those in the neighborhood. Gotta fight fire with fire. Or better yet, with intelligence and smart conversation. Maybe a film now and then. (Did you guys ever finish screening Life of Brian, Ryan?)

So in CoPhi today we’ll be looking at JMH‘s Olympian Gods, pre-Socratics, Democritus, Socrates & Plato, and Aristotle.

And later in A&P, it’s the first of two classes devoted to Cass Seltzer’s (Rebecca Goldstein’s) 36 Arguments, split five ways:

Arguments 1-6 , Cosmological Argument through Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws; 7-12, Argument from Cosmic Coincidences through Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness;  13-18, Argument from the Improbable Self through Argument from Free Will; 19-29, Argument from Personal Purpose through Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity;  30-36, Argument from Mathematical Reality through Argument from the Abundance of Arguments.

Where to begin? The gods, of course. Whatever happened to them, anyway?

JMH points out how human they were, Zeus and Hera and the gang. The pantheon was close at hand, just up the hill.

They were imminent in human life and in the environment: they brought meaningful dreams to sleepers and threw thunderbolts when they were angry. They even lived nearby, on Mount Olympus. They also gave an external cause for human inconsistency or illogic…

Cupid hurled his arrows and your fate was sealed. Gods and daemons pulled our predecessors’ strings and they felt relieved of responsibility for their world. The gods may have been flighty and injudicious and unpredictable but at least they imposed a kind of chaotic order on our human chaos, “invisible bvut made apparent by the authority of the poets.” Until a few pre-Socratic philosophers and Socrates himself came along to question authority of every kind, their rule stood unchallenged by mortal men. But “under the gaze of philosophy”…


Richard Dawkins has famously observed that

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic,  homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Outrageous,” say some. I say he’s too kind, and Seltzer/Goldstein say

The God of the Old Testament commanded people to keep slaves, slay their enemies, execute blasphemers and homosexuals, and commit many other heinous acts. Of course, our interpretation of which aspects of Biblical morality to take seriously has grown more sophisticated over time, and we read the Bible selectively and often metaphorically. But that is just the point: we must be consulting some standards of morality that do not come from God in order to judge which aspects of God’s word to take literally and which aspects to ignore. (Argument #16, “The Argument from Moral Truth”)

And that’s why we philosophers always go back to Plato’s Euthyphro, again and again, when we begin talking to students about philosophy, ethics and morality, and religion. (full textLast Days of Socrates)

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy [or good] is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

“Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality.”

Or you could take it on the authority of two guys called Jesus and Mo.

Doubt Quiz

January 17, 2012

Back to work, after the long weekend.

We’ll continue getting to know one another in CoPhi and A&P by perusing our posted introductions.

Then, we’ll talk about Jennifer Hecht’s “Scale of Doubt” Quiz.

Finally, we’ll divy ourselves into smaller discussion groups to begin trying to settle the universe’s hash (as William James once put it) more intimately. We’ll fail at “settling,” of course, as philosophers always have; but I’m sure we’ll succeed at hashing out some fun.

Here’s the quiz, from the Intro to Hecht’s (hereafter referred to simply as “JMH”) wonderful Doubt: A History. Some of the questions are a bit vague, even annoying, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Choose Yes, No, or Not Sure before peeking below the double lines to see one student’s responses* (I’ll preserve his semi-anonymity here by calling him “D”)  and Hecht’s proposed interpretation** of the results. We’ll discuss others in class and (if anyone wishes) online. As for my own quiz results, I’ll just say I’m pretty “hard-core,” but with a strong tinge of natural piety too. More like John Dewey than William James. [James & Dewey on natural piety]

The Scale of Doubt Quiz

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously make the universe?

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?

7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?

8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?

9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives after death, elsewhere or here on earth?

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings or of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident—a realm of higher meaning?

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

13. If someone were to say, “The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme or reason, and all life on earth but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to judged, noticed, or remembered,” would you say, “No that’s going a bit far, that’s a bit wrongheaded?”


**“If you answered No to all these questions, you’re a hard-core atheist and of a certain variety: a rationalist materialist. If you said No to the first seven, but then had a few Yes answers, you’re still an atheist, but you may have what I will call a pious relationship to the universe. If your answers to the first seven questions contained at least two Not Sure answers, you’re an agnostic, though not of the materialist variety. If you answered Yes to nine or more, you are a believer…”

*One student’s responses-

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

No. So far, none of the gods (way over 10,000 and counting) have ever demonstrated any credible evidence for their existence
outside of human personal conviction or faith, both of which are plagued by inconsistency and incoherence. That fact, compounded by each and every religion’s exclusive, incompatible claims about the divine, makes accepting Pascal’s Wager the beginning of a more extensive problem—not the solution.

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

No. There’s no evidence for this claim either. Smacks of presuppositional question-begging.

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

No. Positing a god as a sustaining force in the universe has no more of a provisional basis than Santa, fairies, the spaghetti monster, or the grand electric chicken (GEC). It only answers a mystery with a mystery and doesn’t get us anywhere.

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

No, and I still go by the old adage: nothing fails like prayer. For a rather crude but (I think) conclusive study, check out the recent experiment regarding the National Day of Prayer.

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?


7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?


8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?


9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

No, and I hope not. As for the Christian understanding of life after death, even playing guitar gets old after several hours so I couldn’t imagine playing a harp for eternity and having to constantly kiss the butt of some angry, jealous and insecure deity the entire duration. That very thought seems like “hell” to me.

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

No. Science has been the most effective way of furthering our understanding of the universe—as Lawrence Krauss puts it: “The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.” And in the words of Jacob Bronowski, “The sanction of experienced fact as a face of truth is a profound subject, and the mainspring which has moved our civilization since the Renaissance.” Feelings can be useful in establishing “ought,” but “is” is a question of science and I believe we have yet to close that gap.

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident — i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

No, not in the sense that there is something “out there” or supernatural beyond our own internal consciousness, feelings, personal experiences, and emotions. So far, evidence weights that the “world beyond” is literally in our heads. Also, one can find plenty of meaning right here on mother earth.

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

No. So far science and reason has given us the best explanation of the world as it exists and is continually progressing. Religion’s view of reality has been proven wrong time and time again. Periodically, scientific claims get proven wrong or the claims simply improved because of the mechanism within science (the scientific method), which is a catalyst for further improvement understanding. Religion, personal revelation, and wishful thinking are devoid of such self-correcting mechanisms.

I also don’t think anything supernatural (e.g., gods, ghosts, goblins, etc.) will be discovered outside of science, which is the current benchmark for human understanding about reality. If we were to discover something “supernatural,” it would simply not be supernatural. We could measure it, talk to it, test it, try to escape its wrath, plead with it or maybe even buy it a beer, but it wouldn’t be supernatural. It will be simply natural. Beyond our current understanding doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural—it just means we haven’t gotten there yet.

13. If someone were to say “The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered,” would you say, “Now that’s going a bit far, that’s a bit wrongheaded?”


Moreover, on the quiz I scored as hard-core atheist of the rationalist-materialist variety. Several of these answers could have easily (for me, being obvious) fallen within the “not sure” category. But in the context of Hecht’s “Doubt”—the existence of gods—I went with a resounding “no” to these answers due to my abhorrence and boredom with the god-of-the-gaps explanation for the unknowable. I don’t champion any of these answers with absolute certainty, and all answers were based on reason, evidence, and probability. I always remain open to examining further evidence and subjecting radical hypotheses to skeptical inquiry.

I reserve the right to be wrong about some of these questions and anxiously look forward to examining the evidence proving otherwise.

our “most important function”

December 13, 2011

The “cryptic James quote” Weiner’s epigraph reminds me of, in which James commits to the “task” of defending experience against philosophy as his “religious act”:

Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.

And what I once wrote of it: James’s “religious act” is, in essence, his formulation and dogged advocacy of a naturalistic creed that can permit itself to take seriously the experience of the private imagination and lonely heart in its struggle for release from isolation and despair and its striving for the vindication of hopefulness.

I still don’t understand precisely what James meant, but I know he meant to support the Lonely Hearts and passionate believers of the world.  Like Jennifer Hecht, he found belief one of our best muscles. He believed in believing, in the action and “experience” it sponsors and sustains. He aimed, he said, to “defend experience against philosophy.”

The problem I have set myself is a hard one: first, to defend (against all the prejudices of my “class”) “experience” against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life-I mean prayer, guidance, and all that sort of thing immediately and privately felt, as against high and noble general views of our destiny and the world’s meaning.

He’s quite right, the class of professional academic philosophers looks askance at such a “well-nigh impossible” project. And maybe they should. Is immediate private feeling what we need more of, to grasp our “most important function”? Or do we need more experience in thinking?

Yes. Some days and nights we need more of the one, some more of the other. This morning I’m feeling the need for both. E pluribus unum.

Americana, Black Socrates, Einstein, Freud, Russell

November 21, 2011

It’s the 20th century already in CoPhi, we must be getting very near the end. But what has concluded, that we may conclude? Absolutely nothin’… Collaboration in the “philosophy of ‘co'” is (almost) never-ending. So it must just be the end of the beginning we’re running up on, this Thanksgiving week. (Remember, STUDENTS, our Thanksgiving break begins Wednesday.)

Today we read of “secular nations, Americana, Evolution & Einstein, Freud, and Bertrand Russell,” among others.

JMH says Ludwig Wittgenstein set the tone for this century when he wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I don’t know about that, as a 20th century mantra. The professional occupation of philosophy does not reward silence, and not many of my colleagues have been known to hold their tongues in public. We all talk too much, that’s the  game we’ve been hired to play. William James did it too, and periodically confessed his self-revulsion for feeding the PhD Octopus.

What an awful trade that of professor is,” James complained at term’s end in 1892, “paid to talk, talk, talk! …It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.

And yet, on the mundane plane of existence and survival, unemployment just  might be worse. Whatcha gonna do, sit silently in a circle and intuit? Meditate? Be?

Speaking of secular Americana (something we readers of Doubt now know to be real and legit, not oxymoronic in Jefferson‘s and Adams‘s and Franklin’s and Paine’s America), it’s nearly Thanksgiving. Lots of people around these parts think of it as a religious holiday, when we’re all supposed to thank god for the turkey and stuffing, but it really did begin as a non-religious festive ritual. Same for July 4, Memorial Day, and all the other public occasions when religion and politics (and football in Fall) all run together. So, for all who find themselves in stifling company on Thursday and called on to grace the excess, here’s a little Thanksgiving prayer. But if that was too much, here’s a more conventional one. [gratitudeFordluckythanks a lotthank goodnessgratitude is good for you (Tierney)]

“Unifying communal experiences” are a good thing, but can be more of a challenge this time of year for those of us who’ve given up football. Penn State was the final nail in the coffin, for me (for it). NCAA collegiate athletics is corrupt (“The Shame of College Sports“) and football at every level is unconscionably violent (“Offensive Play“). But I’m not entirely inflexible on this: raise a generation or two of kids who understand all the risks they run of brain damage, mental illness, permanent disability, premature death etc., and if they still want to play then that’s their choice. I’ll still be boycotting. (Hockey & boxing too, of course.) But pass the turkey, please. And the pie. Let’s talk hot stove baseball.

Thomas Mann was wrong, religion must be separated from politics in a pluralistic democracy. But there’s still something to be said for putting social life “on the altar” (and not the sacrificial altar, either). That’s what John Dewey was doing when he said “the things in civilization we value most are not of ourselves” etc. We are a part of something larger than ourselves: nature, society, and history. The vital question of what life will ultimately make of itself is compelling, and inspiring. “A better life here upon earth” is a sacred goal, and shouldn’t be consigned to the scrap-heap of Marxist-Leninist history. Lenin did say everyone should be free to practice whatever religion they pleased, or none. Tragically he merely said it. So did Walter Rauschenbusch, with his social gospel (“Thy will be done on earth“) and commitment to a just future.

Turkey’s secular experiment (no pun intended) fizzled, but how much bloodshed might we have been spared at this end of that century if people had heeded Ataturk‘s observation that fighters (and terrorists) are more willing to die and kill  when they think their reward will be heaven and its oddly-earthy perqs. (How many virgins, again? But aren’t all angels virginal, by definition?) The social gospel should exclude the society of angels.

The Nazis and Fascists did get religious about politics. (The present GOP has precedent.) But the oft-repeated claim about Hitler’s irreligion is false. “I believe I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty…” You could look it up.

But closer to home, how about that Thomas Edison! “Have faith and go forward,” he said, but faith in what exactly? “I cannot see any use of a future life.” For ourselves as continuous individuals, that is, in an eternal heaven. (Picture lightbulbs popping.) His hero Paine is another iconic American whose true views are not True Blue. But both understood Dewey’s version of naturo-socio-historical continuity very well indeed.

Hubert Harrison, the “Black Socrates,” defies the stereotype of unblinking theism among African-Americans. He also admired Paine, noted errors in the Bible, and embraced Agnosticism (“such an agnostic as Huxley was”).  He said he had no intention of bowing down to a lily-white god or worshipping a Jim Crow Jesus. He was more than a little literal when he also embraced Nietzsche’s repudiation of “slave ethics.” Admitting that reason alone did not meet his every need, he still preferred “to go to the grave with my eyes open.” That’s a really good personal credo, “eyes open.” Mind too.

Emma Goldman, Mother Earth matriarch and “an exceedingly dangerous woman,” found doubt a source of happiness. The negation of gods is also an affirmation of humanity, an “eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.” [Quotes]

Margaret Sanger‘s slogan is (was?) penciled into the concrete of our stairwell in JUB: “No Gods, No Masters.” The fatherly anecdote of a casual rhetorical question about God’s baking skills serves as a sobering reminder to parents and teachers: the smallest throwaway remark can change a child’s life. Be careful.

Mark Twain was one of my earliest mythic heroes. Like the Cardinals, he came with the territory where I grew up, just a little southwest of Hannibal MO. It’s little appreciated, amongst the legions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn readers across the land, that he was an acerbic and gnostical freethinker: “There is only one father cruel enough to afflict his child with… disease.” And: “If Christ had really been God, He could have proved it.”

“Twain believed in God, but not one that cared for us.” Not a god of charity, kindness, mercy, or compassion. We humans may have invented heaven, he says, but we really don’t want to go there. All the fun people would have to be at the other place, if only it were real as well.

There’s more in today’s reading about the Scopes Trial. Remind me to tell you again about my childhood hero and favorite magician Winterton Curtis, one of those scientific witnesses who went down to Dayton and was denied an opportunity to testify for science and truth and Clarence Darrow, “attorney for the damned“. (It was Darrow, btw, not Richard Dawkins, who first said everybody’s an agnostic/atheist with respect to something or other.) Yet Dr. Curtis retained admiration for the natives, as do I. (And as did Charles Darwin’s descendant Matthew Chapman, btw.)  (Damned Yankee in ColumbiaDon’t Tell Me the Lights are ShiningScopes 7…)

“God does not play dice with the universe,” but maybe Einstein just meant that dice (“chance”) doesn’t get played period. Again,

I believe in Spinoza’s God… I do not believe in a personal God… I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

Yet he affirmed a sense of mystery and wonder, beauty and sublimity. “Strange is our situation here on Earth…”

Strange, too, is our situation as diagnosed by Herr Doktor Professor Freud (who’s been interestingly juxtaposed, by Armand Nicholi, with C.S. Lewis over the “question of god“). “Human morality and civility [are] a thin covering over a mass of blind hungers and needs,” and “religion gives most people their only inkling of the philosophical world.” We can do better, maybe people can “handle the shock of the truth.” Eventually, anyway. Grandma possibly can’t on Thursday, though. Pick your battles, keep the peace ’til the pie’s been served.

Bertrand Russell says J.S. Mill wakened him from his youthful dogmatic slumbers.

 I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?'”

I’m no Russell or Mill but I do recall rehearsing a similar line of thought myself, at about age fifteen.  It’s what Carl Sagan was saying on his Day, too. “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world.” Why not?

Well, some will resist that move because they prefer not to face the prospect of ego-annihilation and personal “rot.” But Russell’s view is appealing. It provides a solid riposte to the Buddhist emphasis on existence-as-illusion, one I think most renunciators can agree with (or should): “Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end.” Should we do all we can to postpone the end, and fill the interim with happy purpose? I vote yes. (Did you see the cartoon I posted yesterday?) There’s no other cure for birth and death than to enjoy the interval. (GS)

The future of life need be no illusion, and the vitality of our interest in that future will be as real as we choose to make it. The “good real things of life–work, love, children and play”– may just be good enough.

“whiffs and gleams of something excellent”

October 25, 2011

More Happiness Myth  today in SOL, and review, and the beginning of report presentations. Busy busy! I may need a new drug, to get through it all.

Just kidding. My drug of choice is caffeine, and it’s never failed me yet. I don’t usually feel enraptured by it, but yes: I do enjoy needing it.

Last time I gave serious thought to JMH’s discussion of drugs & happiness, her perspective seemed a bit  “wicked“– not in a bad way, necessarily, just out of step with the conventional mores of the moment. No drugs are good or bad on her view, apparently, but thinking makes it so. And culture.

Overall, our public rhetoric is mythically against drugs, and yet our individual lives include all sorts of intoxicants, stimulants, antidepressants, and other happiness drugs. It is powerful simply to realize that all these different drugs, the “good” and the “bad,” are essentially the same: they are potions people use to get a little happy.

That sounds rash, but wait:

Drugs can be dangerous; either the illegal or the legal ones may affect your health or turn out to be more than you can handle. But that is not enough to explain our attitude toward them.

Our attitude reflects a “dumb” obsession with productivity, and perhaps a dumber unexamined Puritanism (“pharmacological  Calvinism”)  about pleasure in every form. Just link a drug to increased productivity, and downplay the pleasure angle, if you want FDA or general public approval for your drug of choice. Mine is home free on both counts. Red Label is out, in the college cafeteria, while Red Bull is in. “This is not about health; it is about culture.”

But isn’t it also about mental health and the health of our relationships, the tenability of our habits and the plausibility of our goals? She quotes William James approvingly in his famous “sobriety diminishes” passage , but omits the full story. Yes, he acknowledges the “poison” of drunkenness while still sort of “praising it anyway.” But he also deplores the unsustainability of entheogenically-induced transcendence. A tragic unsustainability, true, but inescapable nonetheless. [SPGS]

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole. VRE

So, do we think there’s a respectable place for deliberately-altered states of consciousness in our personal and communal pursuit of happiness? What do we tell the kids, especially when they ask what we did in the counter-culture war?

I tell them everything is chemistry (human & world chemistry share a “porous border”) and there are “natural” ways of tripping your own wires and living better. And of course, we need to address the question of what “natural” even means. What isn’t? What makes the nature synthesized by nature’s children problematically artificial? Anyway, “drugs are in our world like food and sunshine.” Bon appetit, Epicureans, but don’t eat like pigs. Even Socrates feasted at the Symposium, and was well-satisfied.

Can true happiness be drugged happiness? You were happy today. Does the fact that you had two cups of strong coffee and a dose of over-the- counter painkiller have anything to do with our assessment of this happiness?

Maybe, but isn’t the internal experience the same? That’s not the whole issue, of course, but it’s at least coeval with the relational consequences of dialing up a different thermostatic setting.

JMH hates the gym, but physical exercise is the best “medicine” of all. Forget the treadmill and stair-stepper, if you wish. (I actually enjoy them, on cold gray and rainy days.) Run, walk, bike, hike, or even pull weeds, whatever: all can take you higher. So, kids, if you’re asking me I suggest you try that first thing.

Or second. A good cup of coffee is my first pleasure. Gets me out of bed and through every dawn, often leaving a perfectly legal “illegal smile” that lasts the morning. Or until my walk. Or until my sunset whiskey.

The joy of bourbon drinking [said Walker Percy] is not the pharmacological effect of C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky USA sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary. SPGS

Maybe that’s an escape from reality, or maybe it’s a point of entry. Either way, I’d also tell the kids not to stay too long on either side of the gate. Sunset will come again, as well as the dawn’s first cup. Just keep moving. But imagine: a world that respected and valued H.G. Wells’s trips “beyond the door,” just because they showed us other possibilities. You may say I’m a dreamer…

Or a poet. Raymond Carver was probably right: happiness comes on unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really, any early morning talk about it. But I’m enjoying this dawn post too much to heed his warning. Philosophers and poets are pathfinders, after all. “What everyone can feel, what everyone can know in the bone and marrow, philosophers and poets sometimes can find words for and express.” (WJ) Or try.

Drugs can provide true euphoria, and they can provide great-day happiness. They cannot provide the goods of good-life happiness, [which] absolutely requires putting in a variety of tiring efforts, many of which are better done sober.

Well, unless you count being drunk on morning Tennessee USA sunshine. I do.

Finally I’d tell the kids to check out JMH’s longish list of “some of the things long-term happiness requires in the short term” (126) and add to it. Nobody else’s list will quite suffice. JMH’s includes happy-making consumables, tending to family & other relationships, taking a walk (good for her!), and studying for exams. That’s first on the list. Next class, in fact.

“Carpe vitam”: seize the life

October 20, 2011

We’re back from Fall Break with Jennifer Hecht’s Happiness Myth and its  “Wisdom” chapters in SOL today. Here she is in a recent Harvard appearance (She begins speaking at the 6:30 mark):

She’s definitely read her Russell, but there’s nothing musty, dated, or sexist in her authorial voice. She’s fun, and (more important) fundamentally right: the myth of happiness is that there’s a “secret,” a royal road, a special and exclusive way (or handful of ways) to be happy. She debunks the myth. To begin at the end,

Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.

I first found those lines not long after losing my Mom and Dad. They were the very words I needed to hear then, and they’ve become a mantra. The “lovely center of life,” so easy to misplace, so central to the hunt for meaning and purpose and happiness. Carpe vitam: seize the life. Hecht has written of losing close friends and loved ones to suicide. She has much to say to those on the edge, and to the rest of us too.

The myth in question is the “mental corset” of supposing that the prejudices of our particular historical moment regarding a raft of things including our bodies, what we put into them, the consumption of pop culture, how we comport ourselves in public and with other persons, our sexuality, etc. etc., are conclusive. “This book seeks to prove that the basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense.” There have been, will be, and are other ways of seeing the world and inserting yourself successfully into it. Brian Cohen said it best: “You don’t have to follow me,” or them, or it. “You don’t have to follow anyone. You’re all individuals.” Yes you are.

But not really. We’re enmeshed in relationships, another mine-field of modern prejudice. Hecht echoes G.B. Shaw’s reminder that our significant relationships span generations. Pace Shakespeare, “Life is no brief candle [but] a splendid torch… I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” But in case this sounds treacly, she quickly temporizes the sentiment. “Neither Shakespeare nor Shaw must have been to High School or a faculty meeting.”

Hecht has  good breaking stuff, as we say in baseball. (If you missed it, btw, Cards win!) She throws curve-balls. “The idea that drugs create fake happiness is a prejudice… A good day includes more playing than would add up to a happy life… Insight and wisdom can be useless against a dark mood… We live in little cognitive comas… We today are ridiculously goal-oriented… As lame as the game [of modern life] is, it is also a majestic continuation of human culture and we are lucky to be part of it…”

Last I heard, Hecht is currently engaged in writing a new book about Bertrand Russell, who– surprising those who know him asbertrand-russell a serial philanderer and early “free love” enthusiast– said parenting had been his greatest joy. “The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.’

Hecht cites William James on “the pop culture of 1902,” the so-called mind-cure movement that was not so different from our own Secret-smitten New Age. (Secret review) I think we’ll be hearing from Kristen about that today.

A propos of the Holocaust Conference (“Global Perspectives“) now under way and continuing in our building today, Hecht notices: “survivors of an almost fatal experience are understood to be happier than other people,” experiencing “posttraumatic bliss.” (’11 Conference schedule)

pigFinally, Hecht has standards. Reminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” she comments:

“This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning.

The Wisdom section concludes with a lesson we’ll want to master in “Atheism and Spirituality”:

“Secular happiness requires the same kind of meditative work that religion requires.” Or as Richard Starkey once said: You know, it don’t come easy.

Let us think on these things…

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Looking ahead to November: my copy of For the Benefit of All Beings just arrived. Better order it, if you haven’t yet. OR, try this link to an allegedly free download, and let us all know if it worked.

Also note this link to the NYTimes‘ dedicated Dalai Lama page. Of special interest: op-ed essays by the DL, “Our Faith in Science,” “The Monk in the Lab,” & “Many Faiths, One Truth“…

And looking ahead to next week: presentations begin (check the class blog site this weekend for a posted schedule), and exam #2 is a week from today, review on Tuesday. Essays from non-presenters due Thursday.