Posts Tagged ‘TEDTalks’

Lonely connections?

April 13, 2012

As we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other? Sherry Turkle studies how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication — and asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have.

UPDATE: Turkle in the Times, April 21 2012: “The Flight From Conversation

A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Why do we search for self-transcendence?

March 23, 2012

Why do we attempt to lose ourselves? Jonathan Haidt on how & why morality evolved.

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason. In Haidt’s retelling, all the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said reason was fit only to be “the slave of the passions,” was largely correct. E. O. Wilson, the ecologist who was branded a fascist for stressing the biological origins of human behavior, has been vindicated by the study of moral emotions. Even Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s “Republic” who told Socrates that people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched, was “the guy who got it right.” -William Saletan, NYT Bk Review 3.23.12

Shermer, Randi, Tom, Kitcher, Edis

February 28, 2012

More presentations on tap today in A&P, on Religion & Neuroscience and “Parenting Beyond Belief”  among others. More Blackford essays too:

Skeptic Michael Shermer’s Believing Brain lays out his own conversion and de-conversion stories at length. The short version is “Why I Am an Atheist,” and more nuance is introduced in “How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science.” He doesn’t much care for labels, but as a skeptic he “simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented.” So he’s ok with one label: Militant Agnostic (“I don’t know and you don’t either.)

He also does a fun spot with Mr. Deity…

and a snappy TED Talk.

Are science and religion compatible?’ It’s like asking: ‘Are science and plumbing compatible?’ They’re just two different things.

Shermer has interesting thoughts on the religious implications of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He’s skeptical. But I, like Sagan and Tyson and Jill Tarter, think ET’s worth looking for.

We, all of us, are what happens when a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from. –Jill Tarter

James Randi is “appalled” that so many of his contemporaries continue to credit religious mythology and to discredit evolution and withhold instruction in basic reproductive biology. Magician that he is, he still can’t make their superstitions disappear.

Emma Tom takes down the “devout bitch” who terrorized her in kindergarten with warnings of leprosy and hell. But she’s ready for her day of reckoning,  when she imagines “the rapturous sky will actually be full of big-hearted gays, compassionate abortionists, and inner city Wiccans.”

Philip Kitcher defends the pragmatic line on religion, from William James and John Dewey. Religious claims may be false, even “absurd,” while religion on the whole may yet be defensible for some on other grounds. He and they hold out for “a secular humanism that emphasizes the humanity as well as the secularism.”

Kitcher’s new book The Ethical Project is up our alley:

Instead of conceiving ethical commands as divine revelations or as the discoveries of brilliant thinkers, we should see our ethical practices as evolving over tens of thousands of years, as members of our species have worked out how to live together and prosper…

…an evolving ethics built around a few core principles—including justice and cooperation—but leaving room for a diversity of communities and modes of self-expression. Ethics emerges as a beautifully human phenomenon—permanently unfinished, collectively refined and distorted generation by generation. Our human values can be understood not as a final system but as a project—the ethical project—in which our species has engaged for most of its history, and which has been central to who we are.

Taner Edis (Science and Nonbelief) similarly denies “that the question of belief has a single answer true for everyone” and opts for pluralism. What is true and what we should believe, he thinks, may not always converge. I could be wrong, but I’ll bet that’s not going to fly in A&P. I think I prefer James’s own formulation on this point, perhaps (I confess) because it’s a little slipperier:

‘What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we OUGHT to believe’: and in THAT definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is BETTER FOR US to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart? Pragmatism

The bright-sided secret of happiness

September 13, 2011

We’ll finish Bright-sided today in SOL, beginning with a closer look at Martin Seligman’s version of Positive Psychology. He comes off here looking like a self-important pseudo-scientific sham, a huckster with a PhD and a disingenuous surface commitment to optimism and happiness, a disloyal backstabber blaming his collaborator Ed Diener for the “smiley face” patina of +Psych. He and his peers in the Professoriat reject the Law of Attraction, but their science continues nonetheless to trail their publicity machine. He’s a wizard, writes Ehrenreich, but not of the Hogwarts variety. His new book, Flourish, is on our short list of candidates for November. We’ll be voting soon. [Guardian reviewHappiness Institute reviewnyt review]

“Disingenuous”? Maybe, but I do have to concur with his judgment that grouchiness is the default  mindset of too many academics. True, our administrators, “regents,” and legislative purse-holders give us plenty to be grouchy about. If we’ve learned to be helpless, it’s because they’ve taught us too well.

In response, I’m still “trying hard to put more positive emotion into my life.” Call me kitschy, call me a Happy Pragmatist. Just don’t call me Calvin. I don’t insist on putting happiness to work as a character-builder, though I do think James rightly observed that

The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly.

And that

Unhappiness fastens and perpetuates the trouble that occasioned it and increases the total evil of the situation.

In other words, it doesn’t work.

Ehrenreich distinguishes pessimism about the future of the race from personal pessimism. Good distinction, often neglected by PP people.

The Templeton foundation has poured millions into seeking “common ground” between science and religion. Not an inherently bad project, by any means, but Templeton Sr. clearly was a Peale-style magical thinker. Scientists should blush to take their money. Philosophers too. But maybe they should take his money and run, anyway. Funding is funding, right?

Oprah! What do we think of her? (Or her fictional alter ego Oona?)  And what about the explosion across the land of Happiness 101  courses? (For the record, we don’t write “gratitude letters” in my classes. But why shouldn’t we?) “What makes us happy?

Chapter 7 is all about how the economic bubble burst because of too much positivity. Is a happy disposition too good for business? Is the Chris Gardner phenomenon, as depicted in Pursuit of Happyness, part of the problem? Does megalomania + narcissism + solipsism = a good (self-hypnotized) sales force and a rotten society?

Our author’s last word, before we get ours, on this book:

Happiness is not, of course, guaranteed…

The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the “first responders”! We will not succeed at all these things… but– if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness– we can have a good time trying.

If she’s a grump, I guess I’m one too. She calls herself a realist. But I’m enlisting her in my new army of Happy Pragmatists. Oliver’s Army are on their way

And so is Matthieu Ricard, whose Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Importrant Skill we’ll commence on Thursday. Does Buddhism hold “the secret” we seek?

Or does genetics, and biotech?

I’ve added a fiction title to our list of candidate texts for November: the novel Generosity by Richard Powers. It’s about what happens to a young woman and everyone around her when it is discovered that she possesses a rare “happiness gene.” It’s a terrific read & would give us a great look into the questionable (but increasingly popular) notion that genetic engineering holds the secret of (future) life.  Again, we’ll vote on this in a couple of weeks.  Any other nominations?

Attention must be paid

August 4, 2011

TED continues to astonish. I watched Julian Treasure’s talk [transcript] about paying closer attention to the sounds of our lives the other morning before walking in my neighborhood…

…and found myself distinguishing more levels of aural complexity than I’d noticed in a long time. It’s too easy to surrender to the blooming buzzing confusion.

But then something even more delightful happened. I noticed that, having re-awakened to sound,  I was also attending more closely to all the other information streams on my perceptual horizon. I’m not a “visual person” normally, but this day’s shafts and beams of light caught my eye and I snapped this picture.

The moral, of course, which I have to keep re-learning: pay attention. When you “lose your listening,” and your seeing and feeling et al, you really do lose access to the world. You sacrifice experience on the altar of speed and efficiency, or “practicality,” or something. We must retrain ourselves to see, hear, and enjoy what’s all too frequently missed. The simplest perceptual acts can be founts of joy and delight, and as Robert Louis Stevenson said: to miss the joy is to miss all.

Treasure’s right, this should not be extracurricular.

Lose your self, gain the world

July 21, 2011

Excellent new TED Talk from actress Thandie Newton,  whose adopted dramatis personae taught her that our concept of the separate, essential self is a “projection based upon others’ projections” too often rooted in fear and ignorance and the denial of death. It obscures the essential relatedness we all know in infancy, devalues “bountiful” reality, withholds the privilege of enjoying our improbable, finite lives.

A stirring call to awareness, “a breath at a time.” Her recognition of “oneness” joins my growing list of “secrets of life” that make happiness possible. It was already there under the aspect of the Buddha, but this is a fresh and inspiring way to say it.

Ethics is hard, crowdsourcing is too easy

June 7, 2011

“Damon Horowitz is that rare wonder, a philosopher geek.” Thanks, Chris Anderson!

Horowitz is right: Plato or Aristotle? Kant or Mill? There’s no formula or simple answer, and crowdsourcing is not the way to resolve philosophical and ethical problems (Joshua Knobe’s version of X-phi notwithstanding.) “Ethics is hard.” But fun.

Writing advice from the Sage of Concord

April 23, 2011

For all those students busily assembling final essays this weekend, and everyone else in search of a muse:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though his own prose style is not to everyone’s taste, had useful advice about perseverance and perspective. He tried to inspire the “meek young men in libraries” who felt cowed by the legend of the virtually-present authors there, reminding them that “Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”

I don’t suppose most of the young men and women hunched over their keyboards nowadays do most of their scholarship in the library anymore, but the point is still valid: find your own voice, nobody else can do that for you. As for the Sage himself,

Out of his own repeated failures—from which, however, he arose each morning ready to try again—Emerson carved sentences of useful, practical advice…

The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say. Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.

All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word…

All that can be thought can be written.

That last statement may seem daunting, and may defy the mystic’s (and Jamesian’s) claim that all cannot be converted to words. But like it or not, when it’s time to write your essay you can’t be a mystic.

There’s more sound advice in Robert Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process.

And there’s plenty of good kick-in-the-pants inspiration in Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work. 

It’s about getting off your behind and starting something. And once you start, you have to finish; you don’t get off the hook half way through.

Overcome your “Resistance,” face down your fear, write good words, drop the dead ones. You can do it. You can. Five pages is nothing, really. (But it is your minimum, STUDENTS.)

Have fun. Do the work. And when it’s time for a break, check out this wonderful little TED Talk about keeping it all in the right perspective. No plane-crashes today.

Chris Anderson on “On Point”


cultural diversity

February 25, 2011

Wade Davis is right: many of us pay lots of deserved attention to threatened biodiversity but neglect the loss of human cultural diversity, every bit as precious and as vulnerable. His The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World is a finalist for the Orion Book Award, “given annually to a book that addresses the human relationship with the natural world in a fresh, thought provoking, and engaging manner.” It’s based on his Canadian Massey Lectures. He also did a Long Now Foundation talk on the subject.

And he’s a TEDster too. Gorgeous photos, lovely idea: agents of destruction can become facilitators of cultural survival. Pluralism means the preservation of possibility for our species.

tribes (2)

February 5, 2011

Aaron Huey documents the shameful legacy of America’s “cultural genocide” against the Lakota.

Aaron Huey’s effort to photograph poverty in America led him to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the struggle of the native Lakota people — appalling, and largely ignored — compelled him to refocus. Five years of work later, his haunting photos intertwine with a shocking history lesson… TED