Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

Happiness needs cake

February 15, 2013

My CoPhi collaborators did me proud yesterday, answering the call for sweet treats-&-dispositions on V-day. Jennifer Hecht is right: “Happiness needs cake.” And chocolate oatmeal cookies, and biscuits from the Loveless.

It began with a song and just kept getting better as the day progressed. “Delight” is just the right word, as noted in stone by Confucius out in front of our library:

“Those who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and those who love it are not equal to those who delight in it.”

What makes life worth living? Festivity has to be high on my list. Shared celebration of life’s little occasions is a needed reminder of our good fortune. Against all odds, we “in our ordinariness” (as Professor Dawkins* put it) got invited to the party. Lucky us.

Thanks, everybody. Don’t let me forget to return your tins and tupperware.

Anybody else anticipating a birthday?


*After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?


I believe in magic

June 23, 2012

I do believe, I do, I do! I believe in natural magic, the magic of reality. Don’t read Rowling without it.

…the magic of a thunderstorm over Grand Canyon, of the Milky Way on a cloudless night far from light pollution or of a scanning electron micrograph of an ant’s face. Or, for that matter, the magic of a lover’s kiss. Fairy-tale spells, miracles and myths — they make good stories. But the truth — science — is more magical, in the best and most thrilling sense of the word, than any myth or made-up miracle. Richard Dawkins

The magic even works in Kentucky.

Who knows what great magic may lie ahead, as reality unfolds? As Arthur C. Clarke put it,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God–but to create him.”


“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

And finally:

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”

Trying not to think with my gut

September 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawkins’ SpiritualityRainbow Warrior

How does the light get in?

July 14, 2011

Spent some of my morning yesterday with my Mother-in-law in the waiting room of a renowned ocular physician (“Lasik surgeon to the stars,” accomplished ballroom dancer, string musician, humanitarian, fugitive of Mao’s cultural revolution, Horatio Alger immigrant story), following up on her recent cataract surgery. A video loop of old testimonial local TV news stories about the doctor’s previous patients was curiously interwoven with episodes of “I Love Lucy” and a duet of “Danny Boy” with the doctor accompanying Dolly Parton. A strange summer moment, for sure, but mostly it has me pondering this morning the incredibly evolved light-sensing organ we tend to take too much for granted. The creationists are quite right to notice how amazing it is, but wrong to presuppose its defiance of nature.

The embattled Richard Dawkins apparently has an achilles heel with respect to what we could euphemistically call the process of sexual selection (see #elevatorgate and @rebeccawatson for the sordid details), but he’s still a masterful and reliable explainer of other complicated biological things. Here’s an entertaining eye-opener:

“Enjoy it while you can”: Lovelock

March 28, 2011

So we’re shifting gears in NW, saving Stewart Brand’s eco-pragmatism for later and turning today instead to James Lovelock’s dire forecast that it’s too late for us to save the planet. We shouldn’t end our course on that note, though we definitely need to consider it. Let’s consider it now.

Gaia and Whole Earth are expressions of the holistic, indigenous POV we’ve been encountering in the course so far with Wildcat, Eagle Man, Cajete and others. But I wonder if they’re not as uncomfortable as Brand and I with his idea that our jig is about up.

Supposedly,  the nonagenerian godfather of “Gaia” has lately moderated his pessimism a bit. But he told Bob Edwards that

it’s already far too late to stop global warming… we should be committing our resources to surviving in the new hotter world to come instead of trying to stop it.

And less than a year ago he was still sounding pretty fatalistic.

The Vanishing Face of Gaia is subtitled “A Final Warning,” but he says that wasn’t his first choice. He wanted it to read: “Enjoy It While You Can.” That’s generally good advice, especially in one’s 10th decade on the planet, but it’s a bit resigned. As a Jamesian I’m sure it would be better for us to believe that we still have a chance to swerve from the worst imaginable collision with consequences, if we’re prepared to act on that belief and Lovelock’s “warning.”

Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis” co-founder was Lynn Margulis, once married to Carl Sagan, with whom Lovelock worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Carl would undoubtedly be delighted, and envious, to learn of Lovelock’s plans to travel into space (courtesy of Richard Branson) and see Mother Earth entire. He’s hoping to enjoy a transcendent moment while he can.

What most of us don’t get, he says, is our deeply transient nature as a transitional species on a planet we can never own or manage. We’re full of hubris about this.

Lovelock’s view, he concedes, is unpopular. Most climate scientists dispute his “procedure” but not the facts. What we must proceed to do immediately, he says, is get to higher ground and haul out the lifeboats. Our loving mother will kill us in an instant without batting an eyelash. So, climb on up. Or, if you’re already in one of the relatively few temperate or high-altitude, high-latitude places, close the gate.

Bucky Fuller notwithstanding, Earth is not our spaceship but more the incubator of our successors. Is that hopeful enough for you? For us? Well, it’s apparently more hopeful than the green dream of safe and renewable energy for the 7th generation.

Near the end of this clip he explains how he thinks Richard Dawkins and other critics have misunderstood his Gaia thesis. (“Gaia is a tough bitch,” indeed.) Then he says: “I speak for Gaia much more than I speak for people.” Hmmm.

[“Daisy World and Nuclear Energy: Two Sides of Gaia“]

generosity 3

December 8, 2010

Last day of class in FoL, soon the Future class will be past. Time keeps on slipping slipping slipping… So we’d better finish Generosity.

Thassa channels Richard Dawkins: “we are the lucky ones,” he said.

And she says

Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn


No one should be anything but dead.


Everything that is, is ours.

She’s right, but like the rest of us she’ll have a hard time holding those thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most elevated moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.

Older Daughter recently amazed me by participating in NaNoWriMo, “national novel-writing month,” a public writing project in which participants pounded out 50,000 words in thirty days. I was so impressed with her determination and stamina. I’d have felt more like Russell Stone, or a weak-willed Sisyphus, if you’d made me do that: “I have to go take my own life.”

But of course I, like Stone, believe that all writing is re-rewriting. In the past that’s always slowed us down. If we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up. Strap on your seat-belts.

As a pragmatist I feel somewhat dissed by Powers’ characterization of the “witty pragmatism” of the positive psychologist who tells “Oona’s” audience– much like Oprah’s– about happiness. He might be right, though, to advise keeping your options open (“stay loose and keep revising the plan”). Is Powers right to predict that pop media culture will be the largest stage upon which our collective future is to be written? Scary thought. But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too.

Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. We’ve talked about that, in connection with the Updike-Kelly dispute. I’m still in Updike’s (not Kurton’s or Kelly’s) corner.

More Dawkins-esque rhapsodizing about our evolutionary epic:

Six hundred generations ago, we were scratching on the walls of caves. Now we’re sequencing genomes… If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves.

That’s a bit harsh, but I’m inspired. I’m also partial to my old-fashioned founts of happiness. Can’t we have both?

Finally, in this oddly self-referential tale that ends in narrative dissolution, Powers asks “What kind of story would ever end with us?” On Eaarth? You’ll have to answer that for yourself, but my answer is: the story we’re living at this very moment continues with us. Where it all ends is a mystery.

So we’d better be generous, and give all we’ve got right now. The future will be here before we know it. Cue the symphony.

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…

philosophy & faith

August 3, 2010

The dawn’s early light today is sharply etched in chiaroscuro, dark clouds rimmed in pinkish light and connected by shafts of sunbeam. Beautiful, subtle, contrasting, not simply dark and light or black and white.

Kind of like philosophy and faith, both at their best when lit by experience– the experience of persons in their individual distinctiveness, and of the race considered collectively. Too often, though, they’re reduced and diminished by an attempt to declare a winner. The issue is more important than that.

Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting reflects, in the latest Times “Stone” installment, on philosophy and faith in the classroom.  He admits that “faith” alone settles nothing intellectually, then takes an unearned swipe at Richard Dawkins and other “popular proponents of atheism” whose unspecified “demonstrably faulty arguments” he does not stoop to conquer. Or even name.  Guess there wasn’t room in the Times for a proper “demonstration.”

Next comes some sleight of hand not so quick as any reasonably-unblinking eye:

everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.  Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world.

So, what? “Philosophy has no real significance for religious faith,” you might as well go with God if you feel like it? I do hope that’s not the message the Professor conveys to his Fightin’ Irish, much as they’d love to hear it. We don’t summon strong memories, yearn for our children’s positive futures, or credit the consciousness of our peers on a shaky wing and a flimsy prayer. “Our experience in the world” counts for a lot more than that, and the tendency of philosophers to differ sharply and passionately amongst themselves is a measured reflection of just how much more.

The mealy agnostic conclusion is not the “winner” here. Professor Gutting acknowledges as much with his correctly quick and cursory dismissal of Divine order: “Can you really read the newspaper everyday and continue to believe in an all-perfect God?”

No, indeed. Not even if your philosophy professor thinks his profession’s commitment to experience is a “dirty little secret” he needs to apologize for.

avoid boring people

May 9, 2010

Sam Harris‘s recent public utterances on the old fact-value/ought-is debate, particularly at TED, have re-ignited a lively discussion and rekindled my interest in doing a course on the subject. [Thanks to my unpaid but not unappreciated quasi-research assistant D. for bringing “Toward a Science of Morality,” in the Huffington Post, so quickly to my attention.]

Harris’s forthcoming new book, due out in October, is called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It already has Richard Dawkins’ endorsement. Not, probably, Karen Armstrong‘s.

Here’s a statement sure to infuriate many of my professional friends and colleagues:

Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “anti-realism,” “emotivism,” and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.

Ha! “Avoid boring people” is solid counsel; but Jim Watson should have added, and Sam should heed: avoid pissing people off if you want them to give you a respectful listen. (From what I’ve heard, Watson also missed that lesson.)

The line between boredom and depth of insight is difficult to draw. Academics and philosophers need to attempt it. I might argue that one’s capacity for boredom is in direct proportion to one’s receptivity to reasonable persuasion. Sometimes you have to wade through some stuff to get to the goods.

Jennifer Hecht is not boring. Her account of Hume’s salon party with the French atheists Diderot, d’Holbach et al in 1763 suggests that he has been misunderstood all these years. His ought/is distinction was in service of moral skepticism, but not an attempt to de-nature our ascriptions of value.

Well, not wishing to bore you on such a lovely Mother’s Day morn I’ll just state a couple of facts: (1) someone really ought to do a course on this; and (2) nobody loves you like your mother, so you should go and call her. Right now.

wider than the sky

April 6, 2010

Let’s begin at the end. The epigraph for Unweaving the Rainbow‘s final chapter is a clever thought from Marian Diamond: The brain is a three pound mass you can hold in your hand that can conceive of a universe a hundred billion light-years across. Just like that Contact opening sequence. And as Carl says in “Glorious Dawn“:

I believe our future depends powerfully
On how well we understand this cosmos
In which we float like a mote of dust
In the morning sky

But the brain does much more than just recollect
It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes
it generates abstractions

The simplest thought like the concept of the number one
Has an elaborate logical underpinning
The brain has it’s own language
For testing the structure and consistency of the world

But Emily Dickinson’s brain poem, which (among other enduring words) you can find chiseled in stone next time you amble past Vanderbilt’s Buttrick Hall— would’ve worked even  better to convey the staggering range of evolved, embodied mind.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky— For—put them side by side— The one the other will contain With ease—and You—beside—

Dawkins: We can get outside our universe, via the models in our brains. And, quoting the Medawar brothers: Only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on. This reminds me so much (as so much does, I admit!) of John Dewey’s continuous human community, but with a truly cosmic spin. I never tire of repeating it, as some of you know too well:

The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.

But what’s cosmic about brain modeling? The opportunity to survey and prepare possible futures for the links further on. When we adopt a truly cosmopolitan sensibility, and see ourselves as short-term residents but long-term investors in an unfolding epic of  human evolution and cosmic development (a distinction Dawkins drew back in ch.8), the sting of mortality desists. We begin to get the message: every improvement has to come about thru the individual’s dying. For this we get to live, for this we should even be grateful. Loyal Rue: “to the extent that I cherish my life, I have reason to be profoundly grateful for my death.” But maybe we don’t have to go that far, if we can begin simply not to resent the brevity of our time above ground.

We get to transmit our genes and our memes on down the line “more solid and secure,” and can take the most profound satisfaction– for some of us this will register as “spiritual”– in contemplating “links” we’ll never touch personally.

I’ve wrestled a lot with the meme question (see “A Pragmatic Perspective on Evolution and Culture“), and am still bothered by some of Dawkin’s formulations on this pregnant topic. I’ll give him the “selfish co-operators” tag and concede their full “futility” by analogy to those annoying, pointless replicators that lay us low and try to murder our joi de vivre.  And ok, a selfish geneplex does not a selfish person make, I get that.  But a selfish memeplex is something else, no?

Isn’t the point here to grab our memes by the short-hairs when we can and prune out as many selfish-inclining ones as we can? Agreed, “memes versus us” is misconceived. Not all memes are hostile (or annoying) viral invaders. Could some actually be our friends, allies, or (at least) tools for forging stronger links and transmitting a more solid legacy?

And: shouldn’t we resist thinking of them as more “fundamental to life” than organisms and persons? The subjective “I,” the person is no more an illusion than any other brain-modeled picture, and it’s one we have good reason– relating  to some treasured old memes about liberty and action– to retain.

But anyway, self-feeding co-evolution is promising. Bombs, books, critical mass, and off we go. The more you have, the more you get. Let’s get more of the good stuff, the compassion and intelligence and personal selflessness so lacking at this end of the chain of life.

So, the big question: What feeds our species-self’s evolution, and our cosmic development? Or, in terms of another analogy: what are the software innovations that might have launched a self-feeding spiral of hardware/software co-evolution to account for the inflation of the human brain? And what’s the best tool in our chest for hooking up those spiraling continuous links to the future of life?

Besides memes, Dawkins considers the very closely related advent of language, map reading, throwing (I love it, in the afterglow of Opening Day! He’s thinking of cricket but it works better with baseball: Could throwing have been the forerunner of foresight? Was the first word a mouth missile?),  sexual selection, and, naturally, poetry.

I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meanings in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold into a co-evolutionary spiral?

For once, I don’t doubt. I pick all of the above, and some others we haven’t thought of yet. But we’d better keep on cranking out the metered lines. Emily agrees, though she paradoxically speaks of singing without words:

“Hope” is that thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tunes without the words — And never stops — at all —

And that would be a great place to pause, not stop, but this was only the end of the end. Also worth noting in this chapter, the disquieting observation about co-evolution and children’s brains as natural seed-fields of memetic infection. We simply have got to teach our children well, and stop indoctrinating them.

And, I wonder: Is it reliably true that great ideas in philosophy survive in the meme pool for the best of reasons. Is it plausible that the Internet is the first meme-built vehicle of selfish-cooperative transmission? Is the iPad an example of hardware/software co-evolution? Are genes and memes?

In the penultimate chapter: Bongo Java’s notorious nun bun is back! It illustrates our indecent eagerness to see faces. He wrote that way before Facebook. Talk about foresight. And there’s more: I detect ’90s foreshadowings in these pages of Google Earth, game avatars, and the latest in Virtual Reality (with a shout-out to Jaron Lanier, whose new book we’ll read in “Future of Life” this Fall). Dawkins wrote nothing less than a stunning Book of Revelations. Poke yourself in the eyeball, Richard.

The inverted Einstein face is creepy but cool. We see what our brains have modeled and thus anticipate, we don’t see what they haven’t and won’t. Have you seen the basketball gorilla? They didn’t either. (Oops, neither do I. Looks like I mis-remembered the contents of this Shermer TED Talk, which is nonetheless very relevant to our theme today. Here, though, is a shorter ursine version of the phenomenon. I’m thinking the gorilla display was in a Dennett TED Talk, but I can’t find it.  Did find Dennett on memes, though.)

Here’s the clincher: we all have built-in VR software that more than accounts for our species’ tendency to swallow hallucinations, voices, visions, angels, divine visitations…  The models we build of our place in the cosmos, God-centered or not, are part of the environment in which our genes [and memes] are naturally selected.  “Be suspicious?” I’ll say.

And beware the lurking phantasmal homunculus [scroll down].

A few items from the middle of the book we’ve not talked about but should notice:

Ch.7: James on worms and risk assessment; miscalibrated coincidences that (for instance) turn some parents, even Protestants, into anxious pedophile-fearing basket cases; Oliver Cromwell’s bladder…

Ch.8: Tielhard de Chardin’s “tipsy, euphoristic” talk of mystical energy and strange vibrations, and others on quantum healing, the caring universe, etc. Deepak Chopra stands on the shoulders of giants.

Ch.9: Gaia, and rejecting “combat versus cooperation.”

And one more thing: the law of large numbers. Michael Shermer‘s very good at explaining this. [SciAm via Austin’s Atheism Blog] Here’s Shermer on ABC 20/20 a few days ago, valiantly trying to clean up a miracle mess the producers spend most of the segment making. “Miracles” happen all the time, it’s statistically inescapable and naturally explainable. But is anyone listening? Nowadays most of us build our brain models in collaboration with the mass viewing audience, not around the campfire but around our electronic hearths. Michael needs to revive his own tee-vee show.

If we continue to let our brains model intercessory prayers and supernatural miracles, that’s what we”ll see. We’ll flat miss the gorilla. (Wherever he is!)

Next up: Spirituality for the Skeptic redux, on passion and cosmic trust. (We’re trailing the syllabus by a class.) Good excuse to look at this again, and underscore my claim that we can’t abandon our commitment to persons. “We should never let ourselves off, never see ourselves as just the victims of various forces.” We, not our memes, decide who we are.

NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: be prepared to talk a lot in class, I find myself with very little voice today.