Thursday, July 30, 2015


If you didn't laugh you'd cry. Enjoy that whooshing sound deadlines make as they fly by, like Douglas Adams, and die laughing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Live the questions now

Great advice to young philosophy students as well.
...have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet
More thoughts on patience:

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
A.A. Milne

“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”

“There are times to stay put, and what you want will come to you, and there are times to go out into the world and find such a thing for yourself.”
Lemony Snicket

“He that can have patience can have what he will.”
Benjamin Franklin

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace      

“And sure enough, even waiting will end...if you can just wait long enough.”
William Faulkner

“In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fair-mindedness, and gentleness with what is strange.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Your least favorite virtue, or nominee for the most overrated one? Faith. Closely followed—in view of the overall shortage of time—by patience.”
Christopher Hitchens


The limits of satire

We've still not expunged the name of Forrest Hall at my school, named for the confederate firebrand who lent his support to the founding of the KKK. Letters and editorials have been and will be written, violent confrontation is no solution, but Woody has a point: polemic and satire carry you only so far, when Nazis and other white supremacists are involved.

There was this devastating satirical piece on that in the Times.
     -Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks get right to the point.
But biting satire is better that physical force.
     -No, physical force is better with Nazis. It's hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.

How not to take a nature walk

Thoreau clearly isn't for everyone.

Roz Chast in the New Yorker

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Hume-Thoreau connection

Hume was a gregarious freethinking bon vivant, Thoreau an introspective solitary naturalist. But both were committed more to solving life's practical problems than the merely theoretical puzzles that so perplex some philosophers. Hume himself, when perplexed, typically found a pub for distraction. Thoreau usually took a hike.
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty. Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury, whether in agriculture, or commerce, or literature, or art. There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a noble race of men. But why do men degenerate ever? What makes families run out? What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations? Are we sure that there is none of it in our own lives? The philosopher is in advance of his age even in the outward form of his life. He is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries. How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men? Walden
Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.
Were the generality of mankind contented to prefer the easy philosophy to the abstract and profound, without throwing any blame or contempt on the latter, it might not be improper, perhaps, to comply with this general opinion, and allow every man to enjoy, without opposition, his own taste and sentiment. But as the matter is often carried farther, even to the absolute rejecting of all profound reasonings, or what is commonly called metaphysics, we shall now proceed to consider what can reasonably be pleaded in their behalf. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Monday, July 27, 2015

The real me

More full of life James letters:
To (wife) Alice James (1878)-
...I have often thought that the best way to define a man's character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: "This is the real me!" And afterwards, considering the circumstances in which the man is placed, and noting how some of them are fitted to evoke this attitude, whilst others do not call for it, an outside observer may be able to prophesy where the man may fail, where succeed, where be happy and where miserable. Now as well as I can describe it, this characteristic attitude in me always involves an element of active tension, of holding my own, as it were, and trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guaranty that they will. Make it a guaranty—and the attitude immediately becomes to my consciousness stagnant and stingless. Take away the guaranty, and I feel (provided I am �berhaupt in vigorous condition) a sort of deep enthusiastic bliss, of bitter willingness to do and suffer anything, which translates itself physically by a kind of stinging pain inside my breast-bone (don't smile at this—it is to me an essential element of the whole thing!), and which, although it is a mere mood or emotion to which I can give no form in words, authenticates itself to me as the deepest principle of all active and theoretic determination which I possess....
To Shadworth H. Hodgson
NEWPORT, Dec. 30, 1885.
My dear Hodgson,—I have just read your "Philosophy and Experience" address, and re-read with much care your "Dialogue on Free Will" in the last "Mind." I thank you kindly for the address. But isn't philosophy a sad mistress, estranging the more intimately those who in all other respects are most intimately united...

As for the Free Will article, I have very little to say, for it leaves entirely untouched what seems to me the only living issue involved. The paper is an exquisite piece of literary goldsmith's work,—nothing like it in that respect since Berkeley,—but it hangs in the air of speculation and touches not the earth of life, and the beautiful distinctions it keeps making gratify only the understanding which has no end in view but to exercise its eyes by the way. The distinctions between vis impressa and vis insita, and compulsion and "reaction" mean nothing in a monistic world; and any world is a monism in which the parts to come are, as they are in your world, absolutely involved and presupposed in the parts that are already given. Were such a monism a palpable optimism, no man would be so foolish as to care whether it was predetermined or not, or to ask whether he was or was not what you call a "real agent." He would acquiesce in the flow and drift of things, of which he found himself a part, and rejoice that it was such a whole. The question of free will owes its entire being to a difficulty you disdain to notice, namely that we cannot rejoice in such a whole, for it is not a palpable optimism, and yet, if it be predetermined, we must treat it as a whole. Indeterminism is the only way to break the world into good parts and into bad, and to stand by the former as against the latter.

I can understand the determinism of the mere mechanical intellect which will not hear of a moral dimension to existence. I can understand that of mystical monism shutting its eyes on the concretes of life, for the sake of its abstract rapture. I can understand that of mental defeat and despair saying, "it's all a muddle, and here I go, along with it." I can not understand a determinism like yours, which rejoices in clearness and distinctions, and which is at the same time alive to moral ones—unless it be that the latter are purely speculative for it, and have little to do with its real feeling of the way life is made up.

For life is evil. Two souls are in my breast; I see the better, and in the very act of seeing it I do the worse. To say that the molecules of the nebula implied this and shall have implied it to all eternity, so often as it recurs, is to condemn me to that "dilemma" of pessimism or subjectivism of which I once wrote, and which seems to have so little urgency to you, and to which all talk about abstractions erected into entities; and compulsion vs. "freedom" are simply irrelevant. What living man cares for such niceties, when the real problem stares him in the face of how practically to meet a world foredone, with no possibilities left in it?

What a mockery then seems your distinction between determination and compulsion, between passivity and an "activity" every minutest feature of which is preappointed, both as to its whatness and as to its thatness, by what went before! What an insignificant difference then the difference between "impediments from within" and "impediments from without"!—between being fated to do the thing willingly or not! The point is not as to how it is done, but as to its being done at all. It seems a wrong complement to the rest of life, which rest of life (according to your precious "free-will determinism," as to any other fatalism), whilst shrieking aloud at its whatness, nevertheless exacts rigorously its thatness then and there. Is that a reasonable world from the moral point of view? And is it made more reasonable by the fact that when I brought about the thatness of the evil whatness decreed to come by the thatness of all else beside, I did so consentingly and aware of no "impediments outside of my own nature"? With what can I side in such a world as this? this monstrous indifferentism which brings forth everything eodem jure? Our nature demands something objective to take sides with. If the world is a Unit of this sort there are no sides—there's the moral rub! And you don't see it!

Ah, Hodgson! Hodgson mio! from whom I hoped so much! ...If you want to reconcile us rationally to Determinism, write a Theodicy, reconcile us to Evil, but don't talk of the distinction between impediments from within and without when the within and the without of which you speak are both within that Whole which is the only real agent in your philosophy. There is no such superstition as the idolatry of the Whole...

To (brother) Henry James
CHOCORUA, June 4, 1890.
My dear Harry, ...The great event for me is the completion at last of my tedious book. I have been at my desk with it every day since I got back from Europe, and up at four in the morning with it for many a day of the last month. I have written every page four or five times over, and carried it "on my mind" for nine years past, so you may imagine the relief. Besides, I am glad to appear at last as a man who has done something more than make phrases and projects. I will send you a copy, in the fall, I trust, though [the printer] is so inert about starting the proofs that we may not get through till midwinter or later. As "Psychologies" go, it is a good one, but psychology is in such an ante-scientific condition that the whole present generation of them is predestined to become unreadable old medieval lumber, as soon as the first genuine tracks of insight are made. The sooner the better, for me!...

Friday, July 24, 2015

Getting out

Science once again confirms common sense:
...scientists randomly assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus or next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. The volunteers were not allowed to have companions or listen to music. They were allowed to walk at their own pace.
Immediately after completing their walks, the volunteers returned to the lab and repeated both the questionnaire and the brain scan.
As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people’s minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged.
But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.
They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.
These results “strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments” could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve moods for city dwellers... nyt
Also in the Times today: a far more profound immersion in, and identification with, the natural world is reported by Oliver Sacks to offer tremendous consolation in the face of terminal illness.
A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.
I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”
Not everyone is comforted to notice how the short span of a human lifetime is dwarfed by the immensity and practical eternity of time and space, but "getting out into natural environments" really does quiet the mind.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


This morning's Rebecca Solnit post neglected to include the smartest thing she ever wrote, I think: "Walking articulates both physical and mental freedom... Home is everything you can walk to." What can't you walk to?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hume walk

I take the James side, in the James v. Hume radical or skeptical empiricism debate, but Hume remains my favorite Scots freethinker and namesake. He led the way.

Photo published for Hume Walk


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The soul and spirit of atheism

Was Faulkner right? Do we have "a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance" (etc.)? Many atheists resist that kind of talk, preferring to attribute our heroic virtues to intelligence and rationality and other evidently-evolved traits.

But I don't think a secular humanist should ever cede the language of spirit to the supernaturalists. Spirit means breath, soul means life. Breath and life require a natural host. Simplify, simplify. But don't oversimplify. We're not automata, we have feelings that enter inextricably into our thoughts and actions.

Most walkers step confidently in the conviction that our human essence is experienced most vitally in its native habitat, on planet earth, the only world we've ever known. The earth of things, objects, entities, relations, processes, and physics is our spirit's abode.

Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote, in The End of the Soul, that "for atheists the significance of life is greatly increased by the disappearance of an afterlife: the absence of an eternal life allows mortal life to bloom in importance." And when mortal life blooms, spirit breathes free.

This is that delightful old "vision of life at once spiritual and deeply rooted in 'the open air and possibilities of nature'" that I caught from William James a long time ago, a vision that "assigns a destiny-shaping, evolutionary role to the emergent personal and cultural forces of intelligence and the human spirit as gifts of nature... that finds nothing incongruous about nature and spirit in harness together."

And in one of James's more clever turns of phrase and table: "the conception of spirit, as we mortals hitherto have framed it, it itself too gross to cover the exquisite tenuity of nature's facts." Human spirituality naturalized is more subtle and sophisticated than anything ever cooked up in the traditional religious philosophy shop.

So, the end of that soul is only the beginning. Take a breath, and take another step. Whatever Faulkner meant, godless humanists are entitled to invoke the spirit.


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