Posts Tagged ‘Simon Blackburn’

Pyrrho, Epicurus, Blackburn, Sandel

January 29, 2013

That’s the menu today in CoPhi. A deep skeptic, a seeker of simple pleasures and happiness, an anti-relativist, and an anti-doping anti-perfectionist (with the world’s most popular course on justice.)

But first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.

As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.

pigReminding 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,” Hecht 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. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.

piranhaOne more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

And as for Epicurus:

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, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus 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 was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Last time we had this discussion in CoPhi, Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. Lance Armstrong must be feeling a pretty big meaning-deficit these days.

I’ve been thinking some more, btw, about a student’s question whether Oprah is a philosopher. I’d say she has philosophical moments, sometimes asks the hard questions, and is indeed seeking to have and share a “graceful” (if opulent) life. So, sure. Same for the poets (like Whitman) who let us off the hook for contradicting ourselves (“I contain multitudes.”) I don’t think the Philosophy Club should be exclusive or restrictive. Many of my colleagues would disagree, amongst themselves, at their annual association meetings and in their ivory towers. They’ll never give me a car, either.

Anyway: we won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

Connecting dots

September 11, 2012

It’s already the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.  I’ll ask students today where they were, that brilliant horrible historic morning. Most of them were probably in the 1st grade.  Older Daughter was in Ms. Bellar’s kindergarten class at Brookmeade. My wife called the school when the first tower fell, to ask if and how the news was being conveyed to the kids. The secretary was an unworldly lady, her generation’s version of an unsophisticated isolationist. “What’s that got to do with us here in Nashville?”

One of our discussions last week touched on the relevance of space exploration, and a similar sentiment was expressed. What’s space got to do with us here on Earth?

Simple, I said. It’s home. It’s not “out there,” and people who live as though the stars and galaxies were remote and irrelevant to our day-to-day concerns have isolated themselves in a bubble of false security. They’re lost in the cosmos.

Interesting that peace and security were also centerpieces of our discussion yesterday in EEA. Paul Hawken’s “blessed unrest” is blessed precisely because, amidst the chaos and trouble of our times, he finds seeds of hope for a more peaceful and secure world in the unorchestrated coalescence of so many local movements devoted to securing the conditions for life for our kids and their world.

They’re emerging against a backdrop of real progress in human history: we really are a less violent, more secure species than we were not so many centuries ago. It’s hard to realize that, as regional wars and sectarian conflicts rage without end around the globe and 9/11 rolls around once a year to remind us of our capacity for carnage and cruelty. But it’s so. Read and watch Steven Pinker, on our better angels. “We are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

But then there’s football. Here’s the Gladwell link I keep telling people about. I hope everyone reads it. (The surprising defenders of MMA are probably going to be harder to reach, with this message, than I first realized.)

Well, I could go on about that and tomorrow probably will. For now, I’m pleased to notice one of the more gratifying aspects of my work as a teacher: I’m the connector of dots, the one who’s supposed to point out the unanticipated ways that various events and ideas and philosophers can come together and cast needed light.

Talking yesterday in class, for instance, it dawned on me that groups 1 and 3 were barking up the same tree: Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room yesterday. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. We won’t do that, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.

Final score: nothing to nothing

January 14, 2012

I find myself thinking this morning about Lawrence Krauss and Billy Beane, an unlikely pairing unless you spend as much time as I pondering the mysteries of the universe and the diamond.

Krauss was on SciFri talking about his new book, spun out of his viral video, making the case that there’s enough something in “nothing” to make a universe. Or multiverses.

And Beane was in Moneyball, the movie based on Michael Lewis’s book.

What I think about Krauss is that he’s a terrific expositor of complicated astrophysical ideas, but I wish he’d stop taking potshots at philosophers. We’re his natural allies, and we’ve been thinking about nothing  a lot longer than he and his colleagues in the theoretical equation-mongering class have been. To his credit, though, he does talk to us… as he did in 2010 with Sam Harris and Simon Blackburn (and Steven Pinker) on science, morality, facts & values on SciFri. (We should return to this in March, in A&P.)

Beane, I think, at least as depicted in the film, is ultimately a sad figure who can’t celebrate his victories because he expects never to suffer big defeats. His daughter’s serenade is painfully accurate: “You’re a loser, Dad,” not because he loses but because he can’t fully accept his passing victories, can’t “enjoy the show.”

Still waiting to win the last game? None of us wins the last game, it all ends in a draw. Nothing-nothing.

Why not the best?

September 23, 2009

leibniz

bniz: this universe must be in reality better than every other
possible universe…Leibniz

This universe must be in reality better than every other possible universe Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Dr. Pangloss taught metaphysico- theologo- cosmolonigology. He could prove that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as allpangloss things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings… Voltaire (1694-1778), Candide

So she’s like all “problem of evil.” And I’m like, “theodicy, barmaid, theodicy!”

..if you wish for superficiality incarnate, you have only to read that charmingly written Theodicy of Leibniz, in which he sought to justify the ways of God to man, and to prove that the world we live in is the best of possible worlds… William James, Pragmatism wj

Philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us that eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire saw the great Lisbon earthquake as a metaphysically game-changing event.

For some, Lisbon lessened either God’s beneficence or his power.

For others, the quake lessened their estimation of human reason  and a reasonable world. Nature, according to enlightened minds,  was a benign and intelligible force. Its well-oiled operation  reflected the intelligence and skill of a designer God. Could we,  though, retain our confidence in reason, and thus in God’s ways,  in the rubble of Lisbon?

voltaireWhere are our Voltaires, spotlighting the suffering wrought by natural phenomena (Katrina, quakes, tsunamis, tornadoes et al) and the challenges they pose to any rational theist?

Well, there’s Bart Ehrman. (BTW: Ehrman is a former classmate of my colleague Mike Hinz. We hope to bring him to our fair campus next year.) He’s a respected Bible scholar at the University of North Carolina who until quite recently considered himself a devout Christian.

The leading reason given by atheists and agnostics for their disbelief is the problem of suffering or evil. David Hume put it this way, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

In God’s Problem, Ehrman joins the skeptics. He writes:  “the Bible fails to answer our most important question– why we suffer.” Suffering, he says, “is not only senseless, it is also random, capricious, and unevenly distributed… Why are the sick wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Why does a child die  of hunger every five seconds?”

That was Dostoevsky’s question too, in Brothers Karamazov (Book V, Ch. 4 – “Rebellion”), where Ivan asks:  “Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers’ sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten  the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth…

dostoevskyI renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed… to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony.”

So is Ehrman the Christian-cum-agnostic in despair about evil? No. “The solution to life is to enjoy it while weecclesiastes can, because it is fleeting. The idea that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency. It should be a source of joy and dreams—joy of living for the moment, and dreams of trying to make the world a better place… This means working to alleviate suffering.”

Finally, consider a somewhat banal analogy. “Suppose you found yourself at school in a dormitory. Things are not too good.  The roof leaks, there are rats, the food is almost inedible, some students in fact starve to death.

dormThere is a closed door, behind which is the management, but the management never comes out. You get to speculate what the management must be like. Can you infer from the dormitory as you find it that the management, first, knows… …exactly what conditions are like, second, cares intensely for your welfare, and third, possesses unlimited resources for fixing things? The inference is crazy. You would be almost certain to infer that either the management doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or cannot do anything about it. Nor does it make things any better if occasionally you come across a student who declaims that he has become privy to the mind of the management, and is assured that the management indeed knows, cares, and has resources and ability to do what it wants. The overwhelming inference is not that the management is like that, but that this student is deluded. Perhaps his very deprivations have deluded him.” Simon Blackburn, Think

And perhaps belief runs hotter in nice dorms. Should it?