Monday, December 11, 2017

Gopnik on "On Being"

Practicing Doubt, Redrawing Faith
The wise and lyrical writer Adam Gopnik muses on the ironies of spiritual life in a secular age through the lens of his many fascinations — from parenting, to the arts, to Darwin. He touches on all these things in a conversation inspired by his foreword to The Good Book, in which novelists, essayists, and activists who are not known as religious thinkers write about their favorite biblical passages. Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith, he says; we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt. LISTEN
...Ms. Tippett: Right. One thing I noticed, as I started reading through the sweep of your work, also — you say — you reflect in so many ways on the Bible and spiritual life and what is numinous and, as you said, daily and rational, and the contradictions between those things. And it also seemed to me that Darwin — that thinking about Darwin, reflecting on Darwin, being in dialogue with Darwin — is a real thread for you. And one of the things that you talk about, that you write so winsomely and that I just find so intriguing, is how Darwin has these notions of both “quick” time and “deep” time.

Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, I’m touched that you saw it, because that was an important idea for me that — you know how that it is. Nobody noticed. [laughs] Yes, I think that’s true. One of the things that gives Darwin’s life and his work its enormous, almost tragic pathos is that he was aware — he became acutely aware of that. Evolution, biological evolution, only operates and only makes sense if you’re able to open your mind up to geological time, to the unbelievable expanse —

Ms. Tippett: As you say, “this vast abyss of time” is how you wrote it.

Mr. Gopnik: The vast abyss of time. And Darwin’s whole point is, it only takes place over these vast expanses of times that we can understand abstractly, but we can’t experience. And our own actual existence takes place in this tiny, brief lightning flash of existence. And that includes the life of ourselves and of our loved ones and of our children, particularly. And I talk in the book about his experience of his favorite daughter, Annie, and — who died tragically, young. And there’s no question —

Ms. Tippett: And what an imprint that left on him.

Mr. Gopnik: Yes, and that rhythm, that pathos, that tension between our actual experience of the people we love and the things that give meaning to our lives, so brief, so packed — something that only becomes more brief and more packed and more poignant as we age — against this limitless-seeming span of time that’s responsible for our particular forms and for our particular capacities. That’s a kind of pathos of which Darwin is acutely aware. And it’s essential, it seems to me, to — for lack of a better word — the spiritual experience of modern people that we have to have double vision of exactly that kind. We have to be doubled-eyed.

Ms. Tippett: It kind of echoes back at what you said a minute ago about Auden and this kind of interplay, this synergy between misery and love and the human struggle between beauty and terror, that is also there in religion. And you talked about — there’s this beautiful passage in Darwin, which I’ve quoted many times, which is from the very end of The Origin of Species, where he says, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” And you point out, so importantly, that we can only understand the fullness of that passage when we also look at passages of his where he talks about life in the moment. He says, “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects and seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life.” [laughs]

Mr. Gopnik: Well, it’s funny that — I think you understand those passages particularly, if you understand them as, in effect, letters to Emma, his wife, whom he adored and who was a believer throughout her life. And for me, at least, some of the emotional pressure in those passages only makes sense if you see it as his way of saying to her, “I know what you believe, and I honor and love you for believing it. Here’s what I know about the world. Here’s what I know for certain, or near certain, is the way the universe actually operates. And here’s why it shouldn’t be a threat to your feelings and shouldn’t be a threat to your beliefs.”
It’s funny, because my oldest son, my only son, we called Auden. That’s his middle name, Luke Auden, after Auden.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, I did see that somewhere. Wonderful.

Mr. Gopnik: And had we had a second son, I think we would have given him Darwin as a middle name. So we would have had an Auden and a Darwin in the family.

Ms. Tippett: So if I ask you how your study of Darwin and your reverence for Darwin, how 
does it influence your sense of religion, how would you answer that question?

Mr. Gopnik: Well, it certainly influences my manner of writing, because I always see Darwin as a model of the act of explanation and of argument; the morality, the ethics of explanation, maybe. It affects my own — I don’t want to dignify myself by calling it a religion. But it affects my own feelings about the universe, because I think it’s demonstrative of the possibility that you can be completely committed to a rational, if you like, material explanation of existence, of why — how we got here, without being committed to a reductive account of our own experience. You can believe that there’s a completely rational account of how we got here but that you can never fully rationalize what we feel here.
That’s central to Darwin’s distinction between the two kinds of time. That’s central to Darwin’s vision. And for me, Krista, that’s always been, in many ways, the hardest thing to explain and the hardest reconciliation to attempt, and I sometimes despair of ever making it adequately. And that is exactly that anybody who, like Darwin, who is committed to science is acutely aware of the limits of scientific explanation. The greatest philosopher of science in the 20th century, Karl Popper, always said that the realm of science was small and distinct; that there was a huge realm of human experience that would never be susceptible to scientific explanation. Now, that didn’t mean that it could be instantly subsumed in the supernatural but that there were realms of what, for lack of a better word — you can call it spiritual experience or numinous experience or irrational experience or simply the experience of sensibility; all the things that are summed up in Christmas carols and songs and poems and novels and spirituals and all the other ways we have of organizing our experience — that those things aren’t contradictory. And again, that’s central to Darwin’s sense of human existence, and I think it’s central to any person’s.

Ms. Tippett: Here’s something you wrote about Darwin: “Darwin disenchanted believers in heaven, but he reenchanted lovers of Earth. He thought he had found the secret of life, but he knew that nothing could solve the problems of living. That takes all the time we have.”

Mr. Gopnik: That sums up what I think is exactly right. He really believed, accurately, that he had discovered the secret of life. He had found the reason that species change. But nothing could explain the mysteries of living. And I think that we live in that double experience... (continues)
Bigger Than Phil
When did faith start to fade?

In Tom Stoppard’s 1970 play “Jumpers,” the philosopher hero broods unhappily on the inexorable rise of the atheist: “The tide is running his way, and it is a tide which has turned only once in human history. . . . There is presumably a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.” Well, when was that date—when did the noes have it? In 1890? In 1918, after the Great War? In 1966, when Timeshocked its readers with a cover that asked whether God was dead? For that matter, dothe noes have it? In most of the world, the ayes seem to be doing just fine. Even in secularized Manhattan, the Christmas Eve midnight Mass is packed tight with parishioners, and the few who came for the music are given dirty looks as they sheepishly back out after the Vivaldi.

The most generous poll never seems to find more than thirty per cent of Americans saying they are “not religious or not very religious,” though the numbers get up to around fifty per cent in Europe. But something has altered in the course of a century or so. John Stuart Mill said in the early nineteenth century that he was the only youth he knew who was raised as a skeptic; by the end of his life, skeptics were all around him. Yet, though the nineteenth-century novel is roiled by doubt, there isn’t one in which the doubters quite dominate. Whatever change has occurred isn’t always well captured by counting hands. At a minimum, more people can say they don’t think there is a God, and suffer less for saying so, than has been the case since the fall of Rome. The noes have certainly captured some constituency, obtained some place. What, exactly, do they have?

There’s a case to be made that the change is more like pulses than like tides. If the nineteenth century ended with freethinkers in every front parlor, for most of the twentieth century the sound of atheism became more agonized and muted. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the firebrand head of the American Atheists, had an occasional spot on Johnny Carson, but it was always in the last ten minutes of the show, the same spot that, ahem, Johnny gave to authors. (Billy Graham got on right after the monologue.) The glamour lay in faith. Nearly all the great modernist poets were believers: Auden and Eliot in Anglo-Christianity, Yeats in some self-crafted Hibernian voodoo. Wallace Stevens, whose great poem “Sunday Morning” is all about what to do when you don’t go to church, saw his atheism treated very discreetly, like Hart Crane’s homosexuality.

Only in the past twenty or so years did a tone frankly contemptuous of faith emerge. Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists, and, like all polemics, theirs were designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies. Instead of being mushy and marginalized, atheism could proclaim its creed. But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?

A history of modern atheism—what did Voltaire say to Diderot? what did Comte mean to Mill? who was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, anyway?—would be nice to have. The British popular historian Peter Watson’s “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God” (Simon & Schuster) could have been that book, but it isn’t. Beginning with Nietzsche’s 1882 pronouncement that the big guy had passed and man was now out on the “open sea” of uncertainty, the book is instead an omnium-gatherum of the life and work of every modern artist or philosopher who was unsettled or provoked by the possible nonexistence of God. Watson leads us on a breakneck trip through it all—Bloomsbury and Bernard Shaw, Dostoyevsky and German Expressionism, Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso. If it’s Chapter 3, this must be Vienna.

This makes sense of a kind, the nonexistence of God being an issue for modern people, and rising up everywhere. But reporting on every place you see it doesn’t help to see it more clearly. (On one page, we hear about Anna Clark, Tennessee Williams, Stefan George, James Joyce, Philip Roth, Henry James, Wilhelm Reich, Valentine de Saint-Point, Léger, Milan Kundera, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, H. G. Wells, Gerhart Hauptmann, Aldous Huxley, John Gray, Eugene Goodheart, Jonathan Lear, and, of course, Nietzsche.) Argos, the hundred-eyed watchman, might have had more sight than other giants, but he didn’t have sharper sight. Would Matisse really never have painted “The Red Studio”—which Watson takes as a paradigm of post-religious art, with the artist’s self-made space replacing divine nature—if Nietzsche hadn’t made that memorable P.R. statement about the Deity’s demise?

The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement. Watson doesn’t distinguish clearly, or at all, between the two, and so his book manages to feel at once breathless and long-winded—much too rushed in its parts and too diffuse as a whole. Even his chronology of ever-growing disbelief seems off. “Modern art is a celebration of the secular,” he states confidently, meaning Picasso and his like, and although he backtracks quickly, he can’t backtrack far enough, since so much of modern art—Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko—has been religious or mystical in nature.

Only in the last hundred or so pages does the real contention of the book appear. For Watson, we are divided not so much between believers and non- as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life. His enduring sympathies lie with the unduly forgotten historian and novelist Theodore Roszak and with the philosopher Richard Rorty. Both are conciliatory Self-Makers, who sought to elevate experience over arguments and, dissatisfied with science, made of religious feeling its own religion. Watson regards phenomenology as “the most underrated movement of the twentieth century,” and finds in its emphasis on happy sensations, on the thisness of life, the happiest alternative to old-time religion. Atheism sanctifies less of the world but names more of it, he seems to say, and this is in itself enough. This seems to leave the door open for believers to engage in expanded “naming” of their own, which would turn mighty Jehovah into little Tinker Bell—if you say his name enough, he lives. Still, for Watson this is the right, positive, mystery-affirming, life-enhancing, and pragmatic-minded faith to end up within... (continues)

Friday, November 24, 2017


Farewell old Angel, faithful friend and steadfast walking companion 2006-2017... like Grace, Phoenix, and Lilli before you, and now your protege Scooter... You always lived up to your name.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"The True American"

This year America celebrates the bicentennial birthday of Henry David Thoreau with many excellent publications about his life, legacy, and love of the natural world. Only his fellow citizens are likely to lend an ear to them. Unlike his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau hardly makes it onto the list of notable American authors outside his home country. His peculiar brand of American nativism has little international appeal, for as Emerson wrote in his funeral eulogy of May 9, 1862:

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt.

These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty... 

What he found is that “we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it.” Paradise exists all around us, in America’s “wildness,” the natural environment of the continent. In the contact between his own body and America’s forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, mountains, and animals, Thoreau discovered what he called “hard matter in its home.” That home was the “hard bottom” or “reality” that we crave. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” he wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!

The tactile transcendence of America’s wildness opens its prospects to those who would wake up to it. One need not travel to sublime mountain ranges or remote wilderness areas to access it. It lies before us, in what Thoreau called the day’s dawning. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” Only such expectation brings forth that heightening of the senses that allows America to appear in its dawning ecstasies; and lest we take the notion of dawn too literally, Thoreau declares: “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”  ...NYRB
Henry Thoreau

Monday, August 14, 2017

As if

Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book about "strategic untruth," not to be confused with Harry Frankfurt's (or Donald Drumpf's) "bullshit"...
Idealization is a fundamental feature of human thought. We build simplified models in our scientific research and utopias in our political imaginations. Concepts like belief, desire, reason, and justice are bound up with idealizations and ideals. Life is a constant adjustment between the models we make and the realities we encounter. In idealizing, we proceed “as if” our representations were true, while knowing they are not. This is not a dangerous or distracting occupation, Kwame Anthony Appiah shows. Our best chance of understanding nature, society, and ourselves is to open our minds to a plurality of imperfect depictions that together allow us to manage and interpret our world.
The philosopher Hans Vaihinger first delineated the “as if” impulse at the turn of the twentieth century, drawing on Kant, who argued that rational agency required us to act as if we were free. Appiah extends this strategy to examples across philosophy and the human and natural sciences. In a broad range of activities, we have some notion of the truth yet continue with theories that we recognize are, strictly speaking, false. From this vantage point, Appiah demonstrates that a picture one knows to be unreal can be a vehicle for accessing reality.
As If explores how strategic untruth plays a critical role in far-flung areas of inquiry: decision theory, psychology, natural science, and political philosophy. A polymath who writes with mainstream clarity, Appiah defends the centrality of the imagination not just in the arts but in science, morality, and everyday life. HUP


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Norms & Cliffs

I've been prodded to finalize my plans for the "Cheating" course this Fall, to which I'll contribute a block of two sessions. I already knew I'd call my contribution "Cheating truth," and that we'd read Harry Frankfurt's classic "On Bullshit"... but what else? This, I think:

Norms and Cliffs in Trump's America
...deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting.
Suddenly, all we hear about is “norms”—norms are here, norms are there, norms are everywhere: norms violated, norms overthrown, norms thrown back in the faces of their normalcy. Not since “Cheers” went off the air, back in the nineties, have we heard so much about Norms. “Cheers”—surely the best television comedy between “The Honeymooners” and “Seinfeld”—featured, you may recall, its own Norm, the saturnine barfly played by George Wendt, a good example of a man whose life consisted of nothing but norms. Putting a beer out for Norm was a norm of the bar: you did it because it was expected, though not written down anywhere. (“Beer? Have I become that predictable?” Norm occasionally asked, in feigned surprise.) An outsider once arrived at the bar and took his stool. “What do you do?” he politely asked an obviously enraged Norm. “Do? I sit there!” was the answer. These were Norm’s norms.

Norms are social conventions; they’re normative because they’re useful, and they’re not codified because they don’t have to be. One might say that every social game in which we participate has three elements: premises, rules, and norms. The premises state the concept; the rules regiment the play; and the norms inflect the action. Life is full of norms. A norm is a barstool reserved for a habitué. A norm is the rule that you tip the bartender when his shift ends even if you are carrying over the tab. In Monopoly, the rules are written down, but it would be a dull game indeed if it were not played with norms that have developed over time—putting fine money on “Free Parking,” say, or getting double one’s salary for landing directly on “Go.” It may be a dull game anyway—as countless families are now remembering, on rainy days in summer cabins—but it would be a lifeless game without evolved and unwritten norms.

Donald Drumpf and his minions have been engaged, we are told, every day, in violations of what are being called norms—the expectation, say, that the President will not engage in an open war with his own Attorney General, or make reckless accusations of illegality on the part of former Presidents. Google “Drumpf” and “norms,” and you find a huge, alarmed journalistic literature, enumerating the norms of political discourse that Drumpf has overturned that week or day—but those same pieces will also, more often than not, point out that, after all, overturning norms is what he was elected to do. When people accuse Drumpf of violating norms, there is a near immediate concession that they are, after all, only norms. One man’s favorite barstool is the next man’s barrier to bar-service entry. Emily Bazelon, writing in the Times Magazine, summed up the problem this way: “Though some of our core democratic values are wrapped up in norms, it’s still easy to ask: If no laws have been broken, what’s the problem?” Bazelon (who, it should be noted, is well aware that these questions are hard ones) observed that it was “natural enough for his supporters to dismiss talk of ‘norms’ as the useless hand-wringing of a worse-than-useless establishment.”

But respecting the rule of law is not a norm. Telling the truth about matters of state—or apologizing when you haven’t been able to tell it—are not “norms.” They are premises. They aren’t enumerated or listed in advance in a legal document, not because they’re merely conventional but because they make all the other conventions possible. They’re not the way we wear our hats; they’re the ground beneath our feet. Call them—well, call them Cliffs, after Norm’s beloved mailman drinking partner, inasmuch as we fall right off the moral mountain to our obliteration without them. We take them for granted because without them there would be no way of standing up at all. We don’t list them not because they are mere manners and conventions but because they are the unstated absolutes that let everything else go on.

Nowhere on the Monopoly box does it say, “It is forbidden for the players to use guns to force a trade.” It doesn’t have to; sitting down to play Monopoly implies that you have already understood that. The Constitution does not say, in its preamble, “it is important to respect laws,” because it assumes that no one would, or could, seek power who did not share that assumption. Standing up to play the game of government implies good faith in it. Values and premises and principles are not codified because if you had to codify them you couldn’t have a code at all.

This difference is neither merely verbal nor philosophical; it is vital. For deflecting the discourse into one about norms, when we are really talking about premises and principles, is one more way of, well, normalizing Drumpf’s assault on democratic government. It turns what is really subversion into mere behavior. It’s one form of the frightened levelling-off that Drumpf has intimidated too many pundits and reporters into accepting. Every totalitarian country has a constitution—the Soviet constitution was a mockery not because its “norms” were not respected but because the ruling party had complete contempt for the premises it was based on. What mattered were not the norms of its enforcement but the social compact that was understood to underlie it and the mutual respect people showed for it. That Drumpf’s hard-core followers delight in his transgressions—even if such followers were a majority, which they are not—does not make them normative. It is exactly the point of a democratic government to say that, though norms may change, the premises aren’t directly or easily subject to a majority vote, even by the gleefully vengeful. Some of the rules are unwritten because if you had to write them down it would be an admission that there were people not ready to play.

So let us hear no more of norms. Do not let anyone convince you that Drumpf’s evils are matters of performance or personality or affect—that they can be overlooked, or that there is a mere violation of decorum underway. For that is exactly how tyrants have always engaged in the moral degradation of their followers. “I just have to look past the tweets” or “He has a problem with his tone” is the new moral equivalent of “Well, the trains run on time,” or, “At least the emperor has built a lot of marble temples.” Norms come and go, no matter how hardily they stick to their bar stools. The principles and premises of social contracts, which make both bars and republics possible, don’t.

-Adam Gopnik


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Don't fear the reaper

(4:20)...the Reaper was invented during the Plague to cope with the horrors of mortality, and really not much has changed despite our effort to cheat death by running on treadmills or eating kale. The Grim Reaper is always on his way, and while we wait for time to come all we can do is laugh. It may not be
much, but it's a brief respite from the existential grip that death holds after all when death comes knocking at the door he could just be a sore throat.

There are more than 100 of these. Still my favorite:

Image result for new yorker grim reaper cartoon

Thursday, June 22, 2017

America the Philosophical

"America is philosophical not because of the A.P.A. but in spite of it..." Harsh, but not entirely unfair. Past MTSU Lyceum speaker Carlin Romano* meets critics in the lion's den.

This Author meets Critics session on "America the Philosophical" was organized by the Karl Jaspers Society of North America in conjunction with the 90th Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division in San Francisco, California, April 2, 2016.
*Romano at MTSU-

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bertrand Russell Now

The current edition of Philosophy Now has been commandeered by Russellians:

The following articles by members of the Bertrand Russell Society aim to show why, almost fifty years after his death, he remains both an important figure in the history of philosophy and a role model for those who – in the spirit of Philosophy Now – want to make philosophical inquiry accessible to all.To what extent does Russell continue to have a significant influence on modern times? A generation has passed since Russell’s death, and the number of people who knew him by direct acquaintance is dwindling. Recently, in my capacity as President of the Bertrand Russell Society, I received a call from a woman who had seen a listing for the Society in which my phone number was given. “Are you Bertrand Russell?” she asked me. I was rather taken aback (albeit flattered) that someone could even ask such a question. While I can’t in good faith claim to be Bertrand Russell, I can honestly say I’ve shaken the hand of people who shook his hand. Two degrees of separation!
Tim Madigan is the President of the Bertrand Russell Society and has been known to shave those who do not shave themselves, including himself. For information on the Bertrand Russell Society please see

Peter Stone reveals the deep and varied passions of the analytic philosopher.
John R. Lenz tells us why Russell thought philosophy worthwhile.
Tim Delaney finds joy in Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.
Tony Simpson tells us how the Russell-Einstein manifesto led to Pugwash.
John Ongley investigates what Bertrand Russell thought about human reason.
Landon D.C. Elkind explains why Russell believed logic can set thought free. Accelerating Intelligence News