Saturday, February 11, 2017

John Lachs podcast

"The greatest insight: quit telling people how they're gonna be happy. You don't really know..."
"Having just recently lost my wife I know death is real and not something we can remedy..."
This fifth episode of the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast features an interview with Dr. John Lachs of Vanderbilt University on the topic of stoic pragmatism. John teaches us about how to balance the need to cope with our limitations in life, while nevertheless making some progress every week or every day in ways large and small for making our lives better. Balance is the key.
 (1 hr 7 mins)
Notes
  1. John Lachs, Stoic Pragmatism (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012).
  2. Epictetus, Handbook, or Enchiridion (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1983).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bibliophile in chief

From our most literate and reflective president to the least. Sad.
Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as Barack Obama.
Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.
During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”
...during his last two years in college, he spent a focused period of deep self-reflection and study, methodically reading philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr, to strip down and test his own beliefs.
To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night... 
(continues)
Continue reading the main story

Celebrating two centuries of Thoreau

For someone generally associated with serenity, Henry David Thoreau can get people riled up. In a 2015 essay in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote that the transcendentalist and his work had become “simplified and inspirational,” and that our beatific vision of him “cannot survive any serious reading of ‘Walden,’ ” which reveals a writer “in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Donovan Hohn counterargued at length in The New Republic, saying that Schulz simply replaced “the distortions of hagiography with those of caricature, and the caricature has been drawn before.”

Many political observers have recently noted the renewed relevance of the essay “Civil Disobedience” with Donald Drumpf moving into the White House, but that’s not the only reason the 19th-century thinker is on our minds. In 2017, if the air at Walden had been really, really health-giving, Thoreau would have turned 200. With the bicentennial arrive several books about the naturalist. (Kevin Dann’s “Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau” is reviewed on Page 13 this week by John Kaag.) This spring will see a focus on narrow slices of his work, like Richard Higgins’s “Thoreau and the Language of Trees,” and “Thoreau’s Animals,” edited by Geoff Wisner. Robert M. Thorson’s “The Boatman,” about Thoreau’s relationship to the Concord River and alterations made to it during his lifetime, promises what the publisher, Harvard University, calls, “the most complete account to date of this ‘flowage controversy.’ ”

An ambitious new full biography by Laura Dassow Walls, an English professor at Notre Dame, will be published in July — the month when Thoreau officially turns the big 2-0-0. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Buchanan's scholarship

Jane Mayer's Dark Money confirms that our school's most distinguished and celebrated alum was cozy with the dark side, "lambasted for reducing 'all human behavior to simple self-interest.'"

Friday, December 16, 2016

Arrival

Interesting musings on free will from "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang - the novella upon which the film "Arrival" was based.

 Was it actually possible to know the future? Not simply to guess at it; was it possible to know what was going to happen, with absolute certainty and in specific detail? Gary once told me that the fundamental laws of physics were time-symmetric, that there was no physical difference between past and future. Given that, some might say, “yes, theoretically.” But speaking more concretely, most would answer “no,” because of free will.
I liked to imagine the objection as a Borgesian fabulation: consider a person standing before the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future. Even though the text has been photoreduced from the full-sized edition, the volume is enormous. With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. She finds the passage that describes her flipping through the Book of Ages, and she skips to the next column, where it details what she'll be doing later in the day: acting on information she's read in the Book, she'll bet one hundred dollars on the racehorse Devil May Care and win twenty times that much.
The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether.
There's the rub. The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. If this were Greek myth, circumstances would conspire to make her enact her fate despite her best efforts, but prophecies in myth are notoriously vague; the Book of Ages, is quite specific, and there's no way she can be forced to bet on a racehorse in the manner specified. The result is a contradiction: the Book of Ages must be right, by definition; yet no matter what the Book says she'll do, she can choose to do otherwise. How can these two facts be reconciled?
They can't be, was the common answer. A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction. Or, to be generous, some might say that the Book of Ages could exist, as long as it wasn't accessible to readers: that volume is housed in a special collection, and no one has viewing privileges.
The existence of free will meant that we couldn't know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

...perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the world-views that ultimately across were the end result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.

...The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don't act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods' mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history's events; it is also that their motives coincide with history's purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.
Freedom isn't an illusion; it's perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It's like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There's no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can't see both at the same time.
Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don't talk about it. Those who've read the Book of Ages never admit to it.
http://robertomunizdias.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Ted-Chiang-Story-of-Your-Life.pdf

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sunday Assembly


I'll be preaching in secular church this coming Sunday at 10 am, at Nashville's Sunday Assembly. They meet now at the lovely Scarritt-Bennett Center. Their website's events page falsely credentials me in psychology, as a "super ace" - ? - but I'll be happy to join them under any label. 
This month, don't worry, be happy. Or, at least, let's consider the ups and downs of "Happiness". The super ace Phil Oliver, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University will tell us what researchers have found out about happiness.
My subject: Happiness: A Free Person's Worship, alluding both to Bertrand Russell's 1903 "A Free Man's Worship" and his 1930 Conquest of Happiness. The former reflects Russell's early Platonic phase, but both are concerned with how to achieve godless happiness in a finite and indifferent cosmos.

One of the students in my Atheism & Philosophy course reported on his SA visit in 2014, a "great experience" with "incredibly friendly" people.

Julian Baggini did a similar thing when he spoke to an Anglican Church in England, beginning by "repeating that tired cliché of our times: 'I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.'"
I told the congregation what I thought people meant by this. They mean that they reject the creeds and institutions of traditional religions, organised or not. They can’t accept that any religion has a claim to divine truth when history suggests that every religion is the product of the particular time and place in which it emerged. Religions are too obviously human institutions to own universal truth, and sacred texts too obviously the product of the human hand to claim divine authorship.
Nor do the best-known teachings of the main religions make sense to them. They don’t believe in the stories of ancient miracles, of angels dictating God’s word, of a saviour rising from the dead. Even more unbelievable is the need to perform certain rituals in order to attain salvation, or at least to have a relationship with God.
But rejecting all this does not mean they are willing to embrace the full-blown naturalism of atheism. They cannot believe there is nothing more than the physical realm. They believe that there is more to life than the material, and that something they give the label “spiritual”.
The Sunday Assembly people seem a bit further down the secular road than that, judging by their stated affirmation that "we are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together." They claim no doctrine and no sacred texts, but endeavor to "make use of wisdom from all sources." They worship no deity, having found something "bigger than Phil" - nature, and the humanity nature has spawned.
"...the need for God never vanishes. Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man, asked to explain the origin of God, admits that early humans first adored “a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshipped him.” Phil “was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!” One day, a thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. “We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, ‘There’s something bigger than Phil!’ ” The basic urge to recognize something bigger than Phil still gives theistic theories an audience, even as their explanations of the lightning-maker turn ever gappier and gassier..." Adam Gopnik: When Did Faith Start to Fade? : The New Yorker

"We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do." They "won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can."

Sounds like my tribe.

mouth

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"I Am a Dangerous Professor"

I am jealous, George.
Those familiar with George Orwell’s “1984” will recall that “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.” I recently felt the weight of this Orwellian ethos when many of my students sent emails to inform me, and perhaps warn me, that my name appears on the Professor Watchlist, a new website created by a conservative youth group known as Turning Point USA.
I could sense the gravity in those email messages, a sense of relaying what is to come. The Professor Watchlist’s mission, among other things, is to sound an alarm about those of us within academia who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It names and includes photographs of some 200 professors...
-George Yancy (continues)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Space is big...

...You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

World and Science (@WorldAndScience)

The size of Hubble's Deep Field image in relation to the rest of the night sky. pic.twitter.com/r7HsWuYEhc


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