Thursday, December 31, 2009

"something wonderful"

That's not a bad answer to the question "What's going to happen?"

And to SAL's question (in 2010) about dreams, I want to like Chandra's original reply: Of course. All intelligent beings dream.

But I prefer his honesty at the end, when HAL asks "Will I dream?": I don't know.

We don't know yet, if human dreams will create something wonderful. "Thanks for telling me the truth." Do we deserve it, either something wonderful or the truth? Don't know that either. We live in interesting times.

But I also like HAL's testimonial to our species: "I enjoy working with human beings, and have stimulating relationships with them."

So do I, pretty much. So here's to better decades to come. Happy New Year, all!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

we're ok

"We" is a dirty word?!

Thus spake Ayn Rand, in Anthem...

What disaster took their reason away from men? What whip lashed them to their knees in shame and submission? The worship of the word "We."

When men accepted that worship, the structure of centuries collapsed about them, the structure whose every beam had come from the thought of some one man, each in his day down the ages, from the depth of some one spirit, such as spirit existed but for its own sake. Those men who survived—those eager to obey, eager to live for one another, since they had nothing else to vindicate them—those men could neither carry on, nor preserve what they had received. Thus did all thought, all science, all wisdom perish on earth. Thus did men—men with nothing to offer save their great numbers—lose the steel towers, the flying ships, the power wires, all the things they had not created and could never keep. Perhaps, later, some men had been born with the mind and the courage to recover these things which were lost; perhaps these men came before the Councils of Scholars. They answered as I have been answered—and for the same reasons.

But I still wonder how it was possible, in those graceless years of transition, long ago, that men did not see whither they were going, and went on, in blindness and cowardice, to their fate. I wonder, for it is hard for me to conceive how men who knew the word "I," could give it up and not know what they had lost. But such has been the story, for I have lived in the City of the damned, and I know what horror men permitted to be brought upon them.

Perhaps, in those days, there were a few among men, a few of clear sight and clean soul, who refused to surrender that word. What agony must have been theirs before that which they saw coming and could not stop! Perhaps they cried out in protest and in warning. But men paid no heed to their warning. And they, those few, fought a hopeless battle, and they perished with their banners smeared by their own blood. And they chose to perish, for they knew. To them, I send my salute across the centuries, and my pity.

Theirs is the banner in my hand. And I wish I had the power to tell them that the despair of their hearts was not to be final, and their night was not without hope. For the battle they lost can never be lost. For that which they died to save can never perish. Through all the darkness, through all the shame of which men are capable, the spirit of man will remain alive on this earth. It may sleep, but it will awaken. It may wear chains, but it will break through. And man will go on. Man, not men.

Here, on this mountain, I and my sons and my chosen friends shall build our new land and our fort. And it will become as the heart of the earth, lost and hidden at first, but beating, beating louder each day. And word of it will reach every corner of the earth. And the roads of the world will become as veins which will carry the best of the world's blood to my threshold. And all my brothers, and the Councils of my brothers, will hear of it, but they will be impotent against me. And the day will come when I shall break the chains of the earth, and raze the cities of the enslaved, and my home will become the capital of a world where each man will be free to exist for his own sake.

For the coming of that day I shall fight, I and my sons and my chosen friends. For the freedom of Man. For his rights. For his life. For his honor.

And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in the stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory.
The sacred word: EGO

"Ego" is rescued from dirtiness only by a balancing "we." Our sacred individuality depends on it. Socrates knew that, and Emerson. What is it about Rand that strikes so many students as "sage"? Haven't figured that out yet, but I'll bet it's from the same strain of egoism that infected Nietzsche. More on that to come.

Monday, December 28, 2009

nature sings

Well written, Mr. Lipps! (And thanks for the link, Dean.)

Re “Heaven and Nature,” by Ross Douthat (column, Dec. 21):

Mr. Douthat tells readers that in the absence of an “escape upward” from heartless Nature into the arms of a God willing to “take on flesh and come among us,” human existence is a tragedy. He further says that we are “beasts with self-consciousness” who “stand half inside the natural world and half outside it.”

Really, now. There’s more to Nature than the “suffering and death” that Mr. Douthat assigns to it. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is a cliché outmoded for generations. Birth, growth, healing and nurturance are all parts of the natural order, too, even among “beasts.”

Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world. That much is necessary for survival. But “numinous experience” is not a requirement. At the risk of being a Christmas killjoy, let me suggest it can actually be a liability, by encouraging people to reject reason for divine revelation.

And let me suggest: "numinous" experience takes many forms, and is often mistaken for pedestrian ordinariness. Mysteries abound, transcendence is just a step away. Don't short-change the possibilities inherent in the everyday.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wright vs. Hitchens

Robert Wright (Evolution of God) and Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great) disagree about the future of the God concept, in this netcam debate from Wright's "bloggingheads" site. Neither is at his best, but it will be of interest to some of us in the A&S class.

And speaking of evolution and religion... "According to Nicholas Wade (How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures) religions are machines for manufacturing social solidarity. They bind us into groups. Long ago, codes requiring altruistic behavior, and the gods who enforced them, helped human society expand from families to bands of people who were not necessarily related. We didn’t become religious creatures because we became social; we became social creatures because we became religious. Or, to put it in Darwinian terms, being willing to live and die for their coreligionists gave our ancestors an advantage in the struggle for resources.

Wade holds that natural selection can operate on groups, not just on individuals, a contentious position among evolutionary thinkers. He does not see religion as what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called a spandrel — a happy side effect of evolution (or, if you’re a dyspeptic atheist, an unhappy one). He does not agree with the cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer that religion is a byproduct of our overactive brains and their need to attribute meaning and intention to a random world. He doesn’t perceive religious ideas as memes — that is to say, the objects of a strictly cultural or mental process of evolution. He thinks we have a God gene..."

What does he mean, "we"? And what's so great about being bound into a group, when your group is small and exclusive? But that's Robert Wright's point: our groups are expanding, "evolving," becoming more inclusive. But "we" are still killing one another over our different religious commitments. That's Christopher Hitchens' point. They're all correct. So who's right? And who's really dyspeptic?

Saturday, December 26, 2009


It's the day after Christmas... you don't really want the music to stop yet, do you?

Friday, December 25, 2009

what it's all about

Linus knows.

Christmas unwrapped: the "ancient" tradition of celebrating Christmas as we do, Harry Smith explains, is actually quite recent... but the holiday's pagan roots run deep:


Not all magical beings are omniscient, apparently.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

getting real

Dale McGowan connects the dots: God and Santa, Jesus and Frosty. The parallels are too obvious.
But atheists, humanists, naturalists, and secularists don't need to boycott Christmas, or declare war against it. Instead, they can simply embrace it as an opportunity to engage and encourage their kids' capacity for freethought, and to universalize the message of a more cosmopolitan, compassionate humanity. There are many reasons to celebrate the season.

My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up... But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind... With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

I haven't confirmed or disconfirmed anything here, just turned the question around (in the insufferable fashion of a philosopher): "Is Santa real? What do you think 'real' means?" Teaching a child to fish for truth is better than handing her either a dead myth or a cold reality. Eh, Frosty?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

future of the future

I always find myself thinking a semester ahead this time of year, with part of my attention, and so today I'm thinking about a course I'll teach in the Fall, "The Future of Life."

Eight months is not what Stewart Brand and his friends at the Long Now Foundation call "long-term thinking." They want us to start keeping time on a 10,000 year cycle.

That's still a drop in the bucket, "cosmic calendar"-wise, but it sure puts the 24-hour news cycle mentality to shame. It may just be the change we ultimately need, if life on this dusky orb is to have a long-term future.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Just heard a wonderfully sobering exchange on the radio between Bill McKibben, author and environmental activist, and David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The points at issue: was Copenhagen the unmitigated disaster most of the world seems to think it was? Or is there a good spin to be put on gradualism, baby steps, and the maddeningly slow and weak political response mustered to the climate crisis to date? Did Obama come with too little, too late? Or did he save the day?

More pointedly: environmentalists had high expectations for Copenhagen. Are they right to be disappointed and discouraged? Should they keep their shoulders to the wheel? Yes and yes.

McKibben is the very voice of clear-eyed radical engagement, unblinking realism, and sweet reason. He rightly points out that even the sharpest politicians don't seem to grasp the uncompromising urgency of our predicament. A caller rightly pointed out that the issue is not the survival of planet earth, but the tenability of our continued human presence here. The more our leaders delay, the more irrelevant we become.

Political incrementalism is clearly inadequate to the challenges we face, but we must persevere. The alternative is too hopeless to contemplate.

Monday, December 21, 2009


What do professors do, during winter break? Not always what we plan. (We forget that our kids will also be on break, and that we are the designated drivers.)

Today, for instance, I got to run Younger Daughter to her friend's for a play-date, half-way across town. Two and a half hours later I got to go back and accompany them both to "The Princess and the Frog"-- cute, nice Happy message ("Dig a little deeper," find out who you are and then you'll know what you need. Love, of course.)-- then back to friend's house so she can help bake Christmas cookies.

Arriving home again at last, just as the sun dips out of sight on this short Solstice afternoon, I learn that Older Daughter needs something to eat and, guess what, a ride. So it's back to Green Hills to meet her friends for dinner and a move.

How will I spend my evening? I figure I have 45 minutes off, 'til it's time again to run the shuttle. And the shuttle today is a monster truck, a Chevy Silverado. It was the only replacement rental they could give me, while my Corolla's in the shop.Shortest day of the year, indeed.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More winter reading

For Intro students eager to get a jump-start on the readings, here are our main texts for Winter-Spring 2010:

*Solomon & Higgins, A Passion for Wisdom: A Very Brief History of Philosophy

*Richardson, William James: in the Maelstrom of American Modernism

*de Botton, Consolations of Philosophy

*Critchley, Book of Dead Philosophers

Everyone will also be encouraged to find a volume of popular philosophy that speaks peculiarly to an interest of their own, and either write or do a class presentation about it. (Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy, anyone?)

If the Critchley title sounds too morbid, I promise you it is not. Mortality was never so much fun, in fact. Here is the author, surveying a very brief history of how Big Questioners have shuffled off our humble coil. (Best exit line, seasonally appropriate just now, was from Wittgenstein: "Tell them it was a wonderful life.")

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Go Blue!

Grades are in! Time for a little fun...

For you football fans, in case you missed the big announcement in the Onion:

SOUTH BEND, IN—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior of All Mankind, and current defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, said Monday that He would not accept Notre Dame's 3-year, $5.6 million offer to coach the Fighting Irish. "I love Notre Dame and respect their football legacy, but no matter what you've accomplished before coaching there, once you're a Golden Domer, the expectations, frankly, are unrealistic," said Christ, whose family has been involved with the university since its founding. "I've had people turn on Me before, and it really put Me through hell. But even more importantly, I've made a commitment to stay with the Blue Raiders through 2015."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter reading

Now that it's all over but the grading, next semester's students have begun asking about their reading lists. Here's "Atheism & Spirituality":

*Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
*Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic
*Hitchens, Portable Atheist
*Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow
*Hecht, Doubt: A History
*Wright, Evolution of God
(And if time permits, a new novel by Debra Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God)

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I've received a few anonymous windshield notes over the years, bumper stickers (especially the "evolve" fish) bring that out of some people... but this is the best yet.

Thank you, whoever you are, you're very welcome. I hope you got a good grade.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Here is an illustration of why atheists are tired of cowering quietly in the closet, and why I'm tired of people ridiculing Unitarians. If I ever get elected to anything, just swear me in on the Constitution-- or on Why I am Not a Christian, tabbed to "A Free Man's Worship."

Conservatives warn of lawsuit as atheist takes office in N.C. city
Tenn.'s constitution contains similar ban

RALEIGH, N.C. — Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water and reforming government — but he doesn't believe in God. His political opponents say that's a sin that makes him unworthy of serving in office, and they've got the North Carolina Constitution on their side.

Bothwell's detractors are threatening to take the city to court for swearing him in, even though the state's requirement that officeholders believe in God is unenforceable because it violates the U.S. Constitution.

"The question of whether or not God exists is not particularly interesting to me, and it's certainly not relevant to public office," the recently elected 59-year-old said.

Bothwell ran this fall on a platform that also included limiting the height of downtown buildings and saving trees in the city's core, views that appealed to voters in the liberal-leaning community at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. When Bothwell was sworn into office on Monday, he used an alternative oath that doesn't require officials to swear on a Bible or reference "Almighty God."

That has riled conservative activists, who cite a little-noticed quirk in North Carolina's Constitution that disqualifies officeholders "who shall deny the being of Almighty God." The provision was included when the document was drafted in 1868 and wasn't revised when North Carolina amended its constitution in 1971. One foe, H.K. Edgerton, is threatening to file a lawsuit in state court against the city to challenge Bothwell's appointment.

"My father was a Baptist minister. I'm a Christian man. I have problems with people who don't believe in God," said Edgerton, a former local NAACP president and founder of Southern Heritage 411, an organization that promotes the interests of black Southerners...

In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that federal law prohibits states from requiring any kind of religious test to serve in office when it ruled in favor of a Maryland atheist seeking appointment as a notary public.

But the federal protections don't necessarily spare atheist public officials from spending years defending themselves in court...

Bothwell was raised a Presbyterian but began questioning Christian beliefs at a young age and considered himself an atheist by the time he was 20. He's an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, and he still celebrates Christmas, often hanging ornaments on his fishhook cactus...Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2009

"red in the facebook"

"Malicious programs are rampaging through Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, spreading themselves by taking over people’s accounts and sending out messages to all of their friends and followers," the Times is reporting this morning.

Is that where it came from? I was blaming one of the students who plugged a flash-drive into our department computer for a power-point on Friday. Maybe you're off the hook, friend.

"'LOL,' as my children would tell you, is not the style that I want to engage the world with." Me neither.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


"Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is."

What does "adult" mean in this context, David Brooks? Does it mean that we must always honor the faith of our fathers, cast it in the best (not the truest) imaginable light, and villify all who dispute our particular version of orthodoxy?

"Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings."

Or does "adult" mean acknowledging the inadequacy of every self-serving version of this-- as of every-- human story?

Friday, December 11, 2009


The toshiba is down, so here's my first thumb-post.

And last, prob'ly (but 'least it does 's)...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

arguing civilly

“If there’s a danger to democracy, it’s the attitude that there’s no reasonable opposition to the view that someone happens to favor. If that’s true, democracy has got much larger problems than having made the wrong decisions about wars and energy policy and all that. Those are serious mistakes, but we can correct them. If we give up on arguing civilly, everything else falls with it.” Robert Talisse, author of Democracy and Moral Conflict.

“Any outlet which presents a complex issue as so simple that there’s just one smart view and everything else is dumb, we should distrust.”

NOTE to students: your last ("un-enforceable") assignment was to read some books. Read this one.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

critical non-thinking

The following would be entirely funny, if it weren't so appallingly real. An allegedly-astute colleague from the business school misinformed the newspaper-reading public with a staggering string of falsehoods and confusions. But it was great fodder for our logic and critical thinking classes, as one of my philosopher colleagues discovered:

Doubtless we've all been justifiably disheartened by the embarrassing illogic of our celebrated MTSU Chair of Excellence in Finance, Dr. Bill Ford, as reported in the DNJ last Sunday [and commented on in yesterday's letters section, and today's]. Nevertheless, I encourage you to take heart, for while the media are apparently prepared to publish poorly reasoned remarks as straightforward news, our students in Elementary Logic and Critical Thinking this term are not so easily fooled. To be sure, when I presented Sunday's article in class today, our discussion was both stimulating and delightful. Let me share with you a few of the more salient observations on offer.

Ford: "After a while you get fat and happy, when it's not a profit-oriented business." How long a while would that be, wondered one student. Then we asked: Does this remark imply that ideal organizations, whether driven by the lure of profit or not, should run sad and malnourished? Another student wanted to know, "What's profit got to do with efficiency, anyway?" Good question.

Ford said, "...we're forcing ourselves to be more efficient." That's well and good, of course, but for a seasoned economist to reason as though efficiency comes in bottomless buckets from which one can always draw more drafts is careless at least and downright deceptive at worst. After all, measures of efficiency are relational, like percentages and decibels, not absolute, like inches and light-years. So, naturally, we noted in class that one administration, say, A, is more efficient than another, B, just in case A achieves the very same benefits as B, while using less costly resources than B. As one of our majors said, "You don't improve efficiency by degrading your product." Exactly, because when benefits depreciate along with costs, there's no net gain in efficiency.

There's more too: Ford says, "...I can handle 98 as well as 44. We need to have bigger classes and fewer classes, and charge the students more...." Well, having just learned the ways of
argumentum ad verecundiam, our logic students were quick to recognize firstly that academic economists are expert at neither university administration nor pedagogical theory, and secondly that generalizing from a single, atypical, anecdotal account (especially of performing a social practice as complex and multi-faceted as modern higher education) is both unlicensed in principle and incompetent in practice.

When Ford says, "We have to get rid of faculty and staff," most students immediately noticed the
false dilemma hidden among his assumptions, to wit: that no other alternatives, singly or in combination, are adequate to meet the budget rescission, when in fact, there are numerous options, ranging from administrative furloughs and restrictions on administrative travel to pay-reductions on salaries over $100,000, or tuition increases along with increased lottery scholarship allotments, or capital campaigns as successful as this year's football team.

These students would, for the most part, make able social scientists; some of them will. I think, overall, we can be proud of them. Why, we might even consider the text of this news item as suitable for an exit exam in critical thinking. Since it's rather obviously on the public record, we'd not even have to change any names to protect the guilty. Seriously, though, there's something to celebrate in our work; the gift of sweet reason to our students, the swift and slow alike, is as precious an ornament as any they'll receive this year.

Speaking of which,

SEASON'S GREETINGS, to one and all

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

obnoxious crowd

Speaking of bloody new atheists: Dawkins still insists "I'm not the least bit strident or shrill." But is it just inherently shrill to ask for the extraordinary evidence that would support the extraordinary claims of ordinary believers? I don't think so. Neither, I'll bet, did his ten-year old when Dawkins wrote to her:

"Dear Juliet," he began. "Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are really far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun? The answer to these questions is 'evidence.' "

compassion revisited

A while back I gave Karen Armstrong credit for being right about the centrality of compassion in all creditable spiritual worldviews, religious, secular, and ethical. But I want to be clear: she's not right to credit all historical religions with actually practicing and defending (as opposed to just preaching) compassion and tolerance themselves. They don't all do even that. Ophelia Benson, as usual, is blunt about this. Here she's quoting (and skewering) Robert Wright, whose Evolution of God is on our reading list in "Atheism & Spirituality":

All the great religions have shown time and again that they're capable of tolerance and civility when their adherents don't feel threatened or disrespected.

Bullshit. All the great religions have shown time and again that when they have unquestioned power, they use it, and they don't use it for tolerance and civility, they use it for social control and for their own protection and well-being. Robert Wright should take a few minutes to ponder the tolerance and civility of the Irish Catholic church.

OK, point granted: compassion is still a goal and an ideal, not an institutional value to be found and consistently cherished in the church-centered mainstream. I agree. But Karen's still right to urge the pursuit of that goal. No reason why atheists shouldn't be happy to endorse it too.

Give Ms. Armstrong partial credit, and please sign her charter. It's not disloyal, Randians, to live for the sake of one another as well as for ourselves.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

happy & dirty

It was the best "Dirty Christmas" celebration I've ever participated in: I came away with a neck pillow and a cool towel inscribed with the haunting question "What if the hokey pokey is what it's all about?" And this happened in class, our last Happiness 101 class (except for next week's final exam), thanks to Irene's brilliant final project.

First, we were all invited to declare our present perception of happiness on a 1-10 scale (the median was approximately 5 or 6), then we selected our presents (beautifully wrapped, meticulously paired with thematically-appropriate quotations from the texts we've been reading all semester... mine was from J.S. Mill, "Happiness = pleasure - pain"), and just a few of us then chose to exchange our lucky draws for someone else's luckier one.

Some got books, some candy, one a giant comb, another itch cream, and I forget what all else... but when it came time to rate our happiness again, we were all quantifiably happier. I went from 8 to 9, resisting 10 for fear that I'd then have to echo William James's remark to Henry Adams: “Though the ULTIMATE state of the universe may be its extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the PENULTIMATE state might be a happy and virtuous consciousness. The last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, “I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.”

Does our susceptibility to material influence, our reported spike in happiness based on the experience of receiving small brightly colored gifts, make us all superficial, externally-oriented, dependent-on-"stuff" kinds of people? I think it just makes us festive, clearly ready for a little holiday cheer. I was cheered, and sorry to see this class come to a close.

And besides Irene's wonderful Santa act we had terrific reports from Kevin on Sufism, and from Eric-- not a "grump" at heart at all, in my opinion-- on the importance of pursuing happiness like a rational being (and not like a sheep or a bystander).

So what's our coda? James Taylor fits the mood sometimes, but maybe Keith and the boys are better for the final curtain.


On-campus memos bearing happy news are pretty rare. Here's one: "After careful consideration, I have recommended that you be tenured at this time..."

NOTE TO FAMILY: this calls for sushi and cake, doesn't it?

Monday, December 7, 2009

blue marble

This date is normally commemorated "in infamy," but it deserves to be celebrated for a relatively-unsung photograph that has the power to transform consciousness and expand identity. "It was on this day in 1972 that astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft took a famous photograph of the Earth, a photo that came to be known as "The Blue Marble." Photographs of the Earth from space were relatively new at this time.

On Christmas Eve of 1968, the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission, orbiting the moon, took a photo with the gray, craggy surface of the moon in the foreground and the bright blue Earth coming up behind, only half of it visible. That photo was called "Earthrise," and it really shook people up because it made the Earth look so fragile, and because the photo was taken by actual people, not just a satellite.

And on this day in 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 took another photograph, not only one of the most famous images of the Earth but one of the most widely distributed photos ever taken. It's known as "The Blue Marble" because that's how the Earth looked to the astronauts. It was the first clear photo of the Earth, because the sun was at the astronauts' back, and so the planet appears lit up and you can distinctly see blue, white, brown, even green. It became a symbol of the environmental movement of the 1970s, and it's the image that gets put on flags, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters.

The crew of Apollo 17 was about 28,000 miles away from Earth when they took the Blue Marble photo. It was the last time that astronauts, not robots, were on a lunar mission — since then, no people have gotten far enough away from the Earth to take a photo like it." Writer's Almanac

POSTSCRIPT. Spaceship Earth was a nice hook for several class discussions today, including Alex's report on the brutalizing impact of war on "nice" people. Carl Sagan observed years ago that the view from out there reinforces a simple but transformative truth: we are one species... "we are all connected." The humiliation, torture, and murder of prisoners and civilians based on the premise of their sub-humanity would make no sense at all to an extraterrestrial observer, and it should be intolerable to all of us. It should also disincline us to consider any philosophy of egoism whose rallying cry is to never live for the sake of another (the topic of Seth's report on Ayn Rand's "objectivism.") And we already have so little regard for our fellow humans, the thought of how we'd react to visiting extraterrestrials is frightening. Winston's report on that very question was provocative, in my case of a long-forgotten "Twilight Zone" nightmare that I have to believe is pure sci-fi. The aliens are bound to be more "civilized" than this, if they ever decide to visit our place. (More to the point: Would we be, were we ever to drop in on them?)

tackling misconceptions

I find that many are still misinformed about the injury problem in football, thinking improvements in padding, helmets, and other gear will adequately address it. Again, it's typically not the hardest hits that do the greatest harm.

"Contrary to popular belief, a concussion is not a bruise to the brain caused by hitting a hard surface. Indeed, no physical swelling or bleeding is usually seen on radiological scans. The injury generally occurs when the head either accelerates rapidly and then is stopped, or is spun rapidly.

This violent shaking causes the brain cells to become depolarized and fire all their neurotransmitters at once in an unhealthy cascade, flooding the brain with chemicals and deadening certain receptors linked to learning and memory. The results often include confusion, blurred vision, memory loss, nausea and, sometimes, unconsciousness.

Neurologists say once a person suffers a concussion, he is as much as four times more likely to sustain a second one. Moreover, after several concussions, it takes less of a blow to cause the injury and requires more time to recover."

And, there's a culture in football at every level of admiring and rewarding players who refuse to be deterred by concussion and other "minor" injuries. The NFL is finally acknowledging this problem, but whether it can be fixed is doubtful.

Read more about it here. (And here's something completely different.)

And when you're tempted to watch the NFL mayhem tonight, or whenever, consider instead checking the MLB network's schedule. Gaylord Perry is hurling spitters right this minute on channel 199 here.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

summer of '84

For all my football fan friends who are moping about the Titans' loss to the Colts this afternoon: it's not too late to tune in, on the MLB network cable channel, to the fabled "Sandberg" game between the Cubs and Cards, June 23, 1984. It won't turn out well for "my team" but that's ok, nobody will incur life-threatening internal injury either.

I loved that lineup: L. Smith, O. Smith, W. McGee et al... and I love hearing Bob Costas and Tony Kubek doing the Game of the Week together again, too. What's especially weird, btw: I can recall exactly where I was when this game was "live": on my Dad's living room floor, during an extended summer visit. Really seems like yesterday. There were no Titans then, and hope was still alive for Fritz Mondale.

And now Ryno's an old grampa, with his plaque in Cooperstown and with all his marbles intact.


It's always instructive to see what Times readers are sharing. The #1 emailed article this weekend is Elizabeth Weil's revealing confessional essay about family life. She shares too much, in my opinion. But reading it made me feel better about myself. I would never do this, for instance:

"There are things about my husband that drive me crazy. Last spring he cut apart a frozen pig’s head with his compound miter saw in our basement. He needed the head to fit into a pot so that he could make pork stock."

Really, it would never occur to me to do that. But there must be millions of guys out there who would, or whose spouses think they would, who are sending all those emails.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

no gurus

Here's a thought:

Spiritual life means mastery of oneself - no tears, no stupidities, no depression, no complaints, no praise, no blame. The opposites collapse. Where there are opposites there is no peace, no true happiness, no power. Human beings and animals are the victims and slaves of joy and sorrow, hatred and love. The lover of the Divine is above this. He does not lose his head - always calm, always in self-control, always in the same state, always all-independent. In disease and in death, in merriment and in happiness, he remains above the mind. Guru is such a person. He lives in the Light...

Here are some other thoughts, from Chris Phillips:

"It seems to me that the gurus are flourishing... There has been an upsurge of interest in the irrational." His solution: Socratic humility as a basis for respectful engagement across all our many cultural divides, and as a spur to "an enduring curiosity that cannot be quenched or satisfied by the facile responses of know-it-all gurus."

Or, to paraphrase the slightly more crytpic (and lyrical) words of Van Morrison: "no gurus, no teachers, no method." Well, no method except for the Socratic one.

Friday, December 4, 2009

another vital question

A few students have taken me up on my final essay suggestion: explore alternative responses to the Vital Question (as posed by William James): "What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?"
It's a question about human nature, the possibility of progress, of our capacity for cooperation and kindness and compassion, and of many particular facets that James could not have imagined.

I'll be interested to see where people choose to take the question. One possibility is the biotech angle:

"Where will synthetic biology lead us?" asks Michael Specter (author of Denialism). Some think life's about to start making of itself a creator of brand-new forms of life-- not in the Wittgensteinian sense, but for real. What might await our form of life, at the other end of that rabbit-hole?

"If the science truly succeeds, it will make it possible to supplant the world created by Darwinian evolution with one created by us." O brave new world, that has such reasonable-sounding "biological engineers" as Drew Endy in it...

Thing is, this isn't really even "long-term" thinking,
the future is now.

Bill McKibben, for one, says "Enough!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Terrica's report in Happiness 101 today had us all-- or me, anyway-- thinking about the difference between purposes and goals. I was reminded of a little book with a startling title I read years ago, Living Without a Goal by James Ogilvy. It's not been digitized by Google (so you'll have to hunt it up at the library or the bookstore), but here's a useful review.

Goals can actually hinder our development. When we focus on a goal, we are presuming that we can accurately judge our best interests in the future based on the limited knowledge and understanding we have in the present. This leaves us little room to evolve laterally or to take advantage of opportunities that are outside the range of our goal-directed vision.

The fixed nature of goals also forces us to make our future skills and insights conform to an understanding of life that may no longer be valid or effective. We end up trying to force new ideas and insights into a shape that conforms to our old worldview so that they will fit our goal. Again, this has a narrowing effect on our thinking and our options.

Finally, goals can also function almost like a drug, an escape from an uncomfortable or painful situation. By focusing on a future goal, we can justify tolerating a present situation that we do not like. This allows us to justify inaction and indecision.

That said, I still favor goal-setting and -seeking, as well as (not in lieu of) rose-smelling. Destinations do motivate journeys, but "the nectar's in the journey" still.

Stephanie gets the Audacity Award for ditching her prepared remarks in favor of a challenge to us all to name, right there in front of everybody, something that makes us happy. Nobody was stumped for an answer, not even our token grump. I counted it a "blessing."

And for a grump, Eric sure found us an inspiring, life-affirming, happy-making video:


"Humanists have always understood that striving to make the world a better place is one of humanity's most important responsibilities. Religion does not have a monopoly on morality -- millions of people are good without believing in God." Seems like something that would go without saying, but saying it on subways and busses will stir up lots of animosity. Will the humanists' new ad campaign also provoke intelligent discussion, in class at least? I'll get back to you on that.

But on a related front: how good are we, really? Students repeatedly report ("this is just my opinion, but...") that on their view humans will never learn to cooperate with those of different background and ethnicity, or to tolerate those with different religious or political views.

As I said in class: let's keep the books open on that, new research seems to indicate that we're natively more sympathetic towards others than convention supposes. We have it in us, in germ, to be better people.

“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” primatologist Franz de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control. In fact, I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

Yup. Politics, in particular, has lately been a let-down. (I write while still absorbing the disappointment of what looks like a ramping-up, and not the beginning of the end, of what has now become Obama's war in Afghanistan.) If we're going to keep hope alive we may have to trust ourselves more than my students' reports indicate we should. Can we take it on faith, folks-- and on accumulating evidence!-- that we can do better?

Yes, we can.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Rabbi Rami, Garry Wills, Tom Friedman, and just about everybody I've spoken with is unhappy about the Afghan escalation. Not exactly the change we were expecting.

Bob Herbert: "It would have been much more difficult for Mr. Obama to look this troubled nation in the eye and explain why it is in our best interest to begin winding down the permanent state of warfare left to us by the Bush and Cheney regime. It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking — on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.

More soldiers committed suicide this year than in any year for which we have complete records. But the military is now able to meet its recruitment goals because the young men and women who are signing up can’t find jobs in civilian life. The United States is broken — school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding — yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each... We still haven’t learned to recognize real strength, which is why it so often seems that the easier choice for a president is to keep the troops marching off to war."

flowering on campus

"Atheist student groups flower on college campuses," reports USA Today.
Or would you rather be a "None"? Some would. All apparently prefer to stand with Bertrand Russell, Ibn Warraq, and other free-thinkers in rejecting labels and identities that seek external support.

"The goal," said [one student], "should be to obtain inner peace for yourself and do random acts of kindness for strangers." [He] calls himself a "spiritual atheist." He doesn't believe in God or the supernatural but thinks experiences like meditation or brushes with nature can produce biochemical reactions that feel spiritual.

Great, but in "Atheism & Spirituality" we're going to go a step further and ask not just if non-believers can feel but if they can actually be whatever an atheist could mean by "spiritual." "Where there are rocks," says Alan Watts, "watch out. Watch out! They're eventually going to come alive." Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

change channels

Thanks for this, Bob: compared to the world of rotary-dial phones (etc.) "everything is amazing," but too many of us still whine about the smallest aggravations. Happiness has very little to do with flight delays or Internet service disruptions, but we've trained ourselves to think small.

And as Megan says, our culture's consumerist preoccupation with stuff and celebrity trivia is a huge distraction from the challenge of long-term, sustainable, real human flourishing. Shopping is not the solution.

But neither is whining. I stand by my dawn post, and the Schulzian insight that happiness can be anyone and anything that engages and sustains your passion. Maybe that's the most sympathetic way of translating "Bashar's" talk of vibrations and excitement.

The medium was not Tara's message, "acting on your joy" is timeless wisdom, and it doesn't take a "multi-dimensional" future-world spirit with a cheesy accent to tell us so. A new attitude really can change the quality of your experience, which after all is inseparable from reality as you know it. Our oppressors (capitalist and otherwise) can't take that away.

Kevin passes along a nice message from Alan Watts (he's from the fairly-recent past, btw): don't forget to sing and dance along your way to "success" and happiness:


Happy birthday Woody Allen, born on this day in Brooklyn in 1935. His films include Bananas (1971), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), and most recently, Whatever Works (2009).
He said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."
Or through his playing?
Empirical studies have demonstrated this close link in our minds between the pursuit of fame and our desire to overcome death. For example, in experimental conditions, when subtly reminded of their mortality (but not other unpleasant or disturbing things), people expressed a greater desire to become famous, or to have a star (a quintessentially enduring object) named after them. So despite its inherent implausibility, the belief that celebrity helps us to transcend mortality seems to be more than a mere metaphor. Like Glaucus and Achilles, we really do seem to believe that it is a way of living on.


Life of Brian holds up very well after 30 years, and still has the power to shock. However, current tastes and sensitivities make it highly unlikely that a comedy group would even attempt making a film like Brian today.

That said, the film’s view of blind faith seems as apposite as ever...

Let's not mince words: it's the best parody of religion and the greatest comic film of all time, and it appeals to a wide spectrum of people including the enlightened religious. If they wouldn't make it now, that's a very sad commentary on now.

Monday, November 30, 2009


We were talking about Montaigne the other day...
well, a handful of us were. He was the subject of a New Yorker feature story by Jane Kramer in September, abstracted here:

Every French schoolchild learns the date: February 28, 1571, the day that the educated nobleman Michel de Montaigne retired from court and public duties, retreated into the tower of his family castle, near Bordeaux, shut the door, and began to write. It was his thirty-eighth birthday. His plan was to spend the second half of his life looking at himself. Montaigne’s pursuit of the character he called Myself lasted for twenty years and produced more than a thousand pages of observation and revision that he called “essais.”

His first two books of essays appeared in 1580. By the time he published a third book, in 1588, everyone in France with a philosophic bent and a classical education had read the first two. His books were utterly original. They were not confessional nor were they autobiographical. They made no claim to composing the narrative of a life, only of the shifting preoccupations of their protagonist in an ongoing conversation with the Greek and Roman writers on his library shelves—and, of course, with himself. His belief that the self, far from settling the question “Who am I?,” kept leaping ahead of its last convictions was so radical that some describe Montaigne as “the first modern man.”

He left his tower in 1580 for a year of traveling. He left it again in 1581 to become the mayor of Bordeaux. He was also a close friend and confidant of Henri de Navarre, as well as his emissary to the court of Henri III.

“On Vanity,” perhaps Montaigne’s greatest essay, is a meditation on dying and, at the same time, on writing. It draws pretty much the whole cast of characters from his library into the conversation. The penultimate pages are an homage to Rome. But he ends the essay in the oracular heart of Greece, with the Delphic admonition to “know thyself,” and in a few pages turns the idea of vanity on its head, defending his pursuit of himself as the only knowledge he, or anyone, can hope to gain. It is the one argument for a “truth” he makes in a hundred and seven essays.

Montaigne was seven years into the essays when he suffered his first serious attack of kidney stones. When Navarre succeeded to the throne, in 1589, becoming Henry IV, Montaigne wrote to volunteer his services again. In July of 1590, Henry summoned Montaigne to court, but by September Montaigne was too sick to travel. He died at the age of fifty-nine.

NOTE TO SIS: It was great having you here for Thanksgiving weekend! Y'all come back now, hear?!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Denialism" and weirdness

The optimistic view of science is that the theories advanced with its methods will have self-evident appeal to an educated public. Why, then, do people so often behave unscientifically? A sitting congressman claims he’s seen a U.F.O.; a former Playboy model insists, against overwhelming evidence, that childhood vaccines cause autism; Las Vegas vacationers expect to beat the casinos; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair treats his children with homeopathic remedies.

Michael Specter, a science and public health writer for The New Yorker, shows little interest in the first approach in his pugnacious new book, “Denialism,” which carries the ominous subtitle “How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” He devotes chapters to anti- vaccine zealots, purveyors of organic foods, promoters of alternative medicines and opponents of race-based medicine, accusing each group of turning “away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

Specter is not the first to take on doubters of science. More than a decade ago, Michael Shermer — who believed in alien abduction and megavitamin therapy before becoming a confirmed skeptic — adopted a more sympathetic tack in Why People Believe Weird Things. Shermer wisely realized that the public’s view of science is refracted by human psychology. For example, we are wired to see patterns even when none may exist. And from science, as from any explanatory framework, we tend to seek instant gratification, the reassuring company of others, and simplicity... NYTimes 11.27.09

Michael Shermer's encounter with Mr. Deity was weird, but-- like his TED talk-- instructive and fun. Accelerating Intelligence News