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.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

How to Do It (again)

Today on How to Do It, Michael Shermer explains how religion and evolution can live side by side in peace and harmony. It's easy: accept evolution, theists, and accept theism, evolutionists.

(Much depends, of course, on what "accept" means.)

If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe -- 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.

Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God's works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.

As for meanings and morals, it is here where our humanity arises from our biology. We evolved as a social primate species with the tendency of being cooperative and altruistic within our own groups, but competitive and bellicose between groups. The purpose of civilization is to help us rise above our hearts of darkness and to accentuate the better angels of our nature.

Believers should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors. We have learned a lot in 4,000 years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Instead, science should be welcomed by all who cherish human understanding and wisdom.

This piece drew a sharp reaction from Jerry Coyne, who calls Shermer an "accommodationist" and insists that the only religion not at war with science is Deism. (And here's Shermer's reply to Coyne.)

That's the Dawkins line (though he cares little for Deism either). Karen Armstrong, on the other hand, sees no grounds for conflict and hostilities at all. That comes (she says) when we confuse "mythos" and "logos," and mistake religion to be making factual claims about what actually exists in the world. On her view, no reputable theologian ever really claimed that "God exists" (or that any of us really has a clue what it would mean to say so).

Interesting. But won't that come as a big shock to roughly 99.9% of the religiously devout?

Friday, November 27, 2009


Nick Kristof likes Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong, allegedly "less combative and more thoughtful" than the New Atheists. (Stay tuned for future discussions of Wright and Armstrong.)

Kristof's little grenade is mostly intended for Richard Dawkins, who insists-- not entirely persuasively, but wittily and entertainingly-- that he's not strident at all, just gently satiric.

He's plenty thoughtful here, and funny. And he's right on target with his critique of the unconscionable indoctrination of young children into traditions they cannot begin to understand. It really does border (at best) on intellectual abuse.

And I can corroborate the claim that more attention, if not always more "raised consciousness," accrues to those who care less about being nice than being noticed and taken seriously. Humanists and most atheists have been "nice" and marginal forever. They've been sitting and chilling (as Marcus Brigstocke advises the religious extremists) and getting nobody's attention.

So yes, Mr. Kristof, an armistice in the religion wars-- a move away from intolerance by all-- is a great idea. Its time will finally arrive when the extremists stop persecuting and killing the people they deem immoral, and when "thoughtful" religious moderates in every Abrahamic tradition stop forgiving them for it... not when atheists and humanists shut up.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

atheist with a soul

First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud's The Future of An Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time Magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had ended by dubbing him "the atheist with a soul." When the magazine came out, Cass's literary agent, Sy Auerbach, called to congratulate him. "Now that you're famous, even I might have to take you seriously. ...

Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (excerpted at

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving "prayer"

This is a very one-sided, jaded, ungrateful soliloquy... but Thanksgiving in this country traditionally is a very one-sided religio-patriotic holiday. A little over-compensation in the other direction just might restore some needed perspective.

Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts
thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison
thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger
thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcass to rot
thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes
thanks for the AMERICAN DREAM to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through
thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces
thanks for Kill a Queer for Christ stickers
thanks for laboratory AIDS
thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs
thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business
thanks for a nation of finks — yes,
thanks for all the memories all right, lets see your arms you always were a headache and you always were a bore
thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

William S. Burroughs

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


NEW YORK — Albert Pujols was unanimously voted National League MVP on Tuesday, becoming the first player to repeat since Barry Bonds won four in a row from 2001-04. Pujols received all 32 first-place votes...

Warm up that hot stove, pass the pumpkin pie, and speak to me not of pigskins! Now how many days 'til Spring Training? (About 80, I think.)

That's a lot of downs, but my football boycott continues.

Vince who?

happy ending

"Call no man happy 'til he is dead." We talked about that in Happiness 101 in September. I disputed it then, and still do. It's just too dispiriting and irrelevant. What's the point of trying to be happily expired?

But I see no contest at all over the question of whether you can be happy and a scoundrel. I can't be, but of course you
can... if you're that sort of person.

Sure, from my point of view (and from yours, I hope), the happiness of bad people is a degraded and inferior brand. Aristotelian
eudaimonia is not supposed to be subjective, but people's estimations of their own well-being certainly are. Plenty of people are as bad as they want to be, and they seem plenty happy too. While that's an affront to the rest of us, it's just too bad. But I don't guess many of the rest of us will be lining up to join the scoundrels club, anyway. The institutions of morality are safe. We're all gonna be what we're gonna be.

So, Christine Vitrano, you're right too: "the happy tyrant, the happy hermit, and the happy immoralist" are perfectly possible, fairly-frequently actual human types. I hope Hitler wasn't overly happy but I fear he may have been, more often at least than most of his victims; and I wish my worldview allowed me the consolation of thinking that he finally got his. It doesn't. (Julia Sweeney: "You mean he just... died?!" Evidently, Craig.)

But the penultimate little essay in our final text hits just the right note of ambivalence, with Woody Allen's
Crimes and Misdemeanors. Even the most upstanding of us, thinking ourselves "good" and decent and entitled to happiness, are capable of compromising our integrity and our self-respect in its pursuit, in horrible and harmful ways.

So? It's important to live well, but don't under-rate the importance of living with an eye to being well thought of after we're gone. (A point his character in another film makes, while standing alongside a classroom skeleton and noting that we're all going to "thin out"; when we do, it would be nice to retain at least a deserved reputation for having acted with a little integrity as moral agents while we still could.) That's not the same as being happy, but maybe it's a condition of being worthy, in one's own eyes, of being happy.

If that isn't a happy ending, isn't it a good place to begin thinking about our ends? As we said back when we began, "each of us must take responsibility for assessing the conditions of our own flourishing, must be open to the possibility of our good coming from the last places we'd ever expect, and should be prepared to jettison others' expectations (and sometimes our own)." And then? Play the scene. It's real life, not Hollywood.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dawkins' rainbow

Another of the books we'll spend time with in "Atheism & Spirituality": Richard Dawkins' 1991 ode to the joys and wonders of science, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. Dawkins explicitly rejects the loose charge of nihilism and passionless materialism, and rises to make a Sagan-esque case for science as a richer source of spirituality than any mainstream religion. (reviews)

Here he is reading a selection from its early pages, one that he and others have said they'll stipulate for inclusion in their funeral services. I don't like to think too much about that myself, but I suppose I wouldn't mind including it either. (Well, I won't be minding anything, will I?-- Unless I can manage a Tom Sawyer-style appearance, correcting exaggerated reports of my demise...)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

vital question

"The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?"

--William James, Pragmatism

In 1938, some people thought we'd be living in a bubble by now. I'm glad they missed that call. Maybe we want to speculate not so much about the particular details of the material culture of tomorrow, but should concern ourselves with what kinds of people we'll be. Will we still be killing one another over our different ideas about what life ought eventually to make of itself?

On this day in 1963, most Americans would have said the prospects were dim. How much more sordid (but also splendid) history has passed in four-plus decades. Let us hope, and work, for the best that is yet to be.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

critical thinking

We were talking in Happiness 101 about the decline of critical thinking among the young, the devout, and the credulous... prompted by popular worries about a looming apocalypse, the antichrist, etc. J & M don't really want to be part of the solution.

happy rats

Rats are happier when they've been habituated to the "positive stress" of exercise*: a lesson for laggards and misanthropes (and devotees of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche).

New research has undermined the simplistic view of serotonin as the “happy” brain chemical... rats taught to feel helpless and anxious, by being exposed to a laboratory stressor, showed increased serotonin activity in their brains. But rats that had run for several weeks before being stressed showed less serotonin activity and were less anxious and helpless despite the stress.

Anxiety in rodents and people has been linked with excessive oxidative stress, which can lead to cell death, including in the brain. Moderate exercise, though, appears to dampen the effects of oxidative stress... rats that had exercised were relatively nonchalant under stress. They didn’t run for dark corners and hide, like the unexercised rats. They insouciantly explored.

*This goes for moderate walker-rats, too, not just gym rats. The best exploring is pedestrian.

Friday, November 20, 2009

natural religion

Dewey’s epitaph, on the UVM campus in Burlington, Vermont:

John Dewey
Class of '79

“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

A Common Faith, conclusion

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Question everything

Turned out to be George Carlin Day in Happiness 101, we didn't even get around to the Experience Machine. But that's ok, I think we're all sold on reality-- its necessity, not necessarily its superiority-- already.

George was too, and in his own words (and by the testimony of friends like Tony Hendra) he liked people... to a point. Not an unreasonable attitude at all. And wasn't George a (more-or-less) happy pessimist? A much better one than Schopenhauer, in fact, because he was (deliberately) funny.

So here's one more Carlin clip, the one I alluded to in class. He's not going for laughs here, this is about our future. He was a comedian with a conscience, and these are among his last public words. Characteristically profane, but from a distinctively humane source.


Poor old Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Scrooge and Sourpuss, victim of his own wan and withering emotions. At least Nietzsche eventually got over the petulant, purposeless rage against fate that kept his former hero sunk in a lifetime of pessimism, isolation, and despair. But from the vantage of mellow Jamesian meliorism, both resembled rodents.

"The mood of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche... though often an ennobling sadness, is almost as often only peevishness running away with the bit between its teeth. The sallies of the two German authors remind one, half the time, of the sick shriekings of two dying rats."

But Schopenhauer was not a total scrooge, at least towards his beloved little poodles (his favorite was "Atman") and one or two other human beings. That's why Alain de Botton chose him to exemplify "consolation for a broken heart."

His trouble was that he never learned to enjoy the passage of time. Might as well enjoy the ride, Artie. Give us a smile. "The present may be compared to a small dark cloud which the wind drives over the sunny plain," sure. But why not compare it to sunshine breaking through clouds? Sometimes it's like that, too.

JT does agree, though: time isn't really real, "nothingness itself is therefore the only objective element in time." So... embrace your subjectivity. Arguably, that's exactly what Schopenhauer did. His World as Will and Idea was an extrusion from the recesses of his subjective melancholy, and it gave him some considerable satisfaction to extrude it.

Schopenhauer deserves an award for the Most Howling Non-Sequitur by a supposedly-brilliant mind. "The hours pass the quicker the more agreeably they are spent, and the slower the more painfully they are spent... We become conscious of time when we are bored, not when we are diverted. [This proves] that our existence is most happy when we perceive it least, from which it follows that it would be better not to have it."

He's not wrong, though, to note that unremediated evil and suffering "can never be annulled, and consequently can never be balanced." There's no remedy for past suffering. As in bodily health, we must be pro-active. Practice preventive medicine, and pursue "wellness." Still, to call this world-- or even Schopenhauer's 19th century-- "the worst of all possible worlds," is to betray a dearth of imagination.

I don't disagree either, though, with his pronouncement that stoical equanimity too easily collapses into cynical renunciation.

The bit about how disgusted unhappy people are made by the spectacle of "one whom they imagine happy" scores no points against happy people.

Arthur would have been happy to greet the apocalypse, and would have been first in line for 2012. Of course Pompeii, the Lisbon earthquake, et al barely scratched the surface of possible cataclysm. He wishes.

His most sympathetic human views centered on art, which he actually said helps us "transcend egotistical interests and empathize with universal emotions."

Metaphysician, heal thyself.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Julia Annas analyzes the results of a thought experiment in which students who'd first said a happy life consists in a large salary, a nice house, an SUV etc., decide on second thought that a sudden, unexpected cash windfall would not make them happy after all:

"What this shows is that it was not really the material things, the stuff, that they imagined would make their lives happy. Rather, they thought of a happy life as one in which they earned the money, made something of their lives... Just having the stuff was not all they wanted."

Indeed. "How many people really think that stuff alone will make them happy?"

Too many, no doubt. But whatever they think, stuff happens.

Doomsday P.S.A.

2012 will not be the end of the world as we know it.

I feel fine. One less thing, eh?

Postscript: discussing this post in class today, a student insisted that the Mayans had been spot-on with their predictions so far. He wasn't saying they were right this time, but still...

And then, after class, a student-- an African-American student, no less-- lingered to inform me that he thinks Obama is the antichrist.

And in another class, a report on the 1997 Heaven's Gate suicide cult concluded that the group leader, who pronounced in a YouTube-preserved recruitment video his bizarre belief that he and his friends must depart this earth in order to"evolve" in the direction of their alien progenitors, was not obviously insane.

I don't feel quite so fine as I did this morning.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

shiny happy people

We didn't get around to noting, in class, two important observations on Aristotle's concept of flourishing.

Aristotle "calls someone eudaimon only if that person comes fairly close to the ideal life for all human beings, whereas our standard of happiness is more subjective and flexible. We do not have a defensible theory about which lives are ideal, and even if we did, we would not want to judge people happy only if they come close to the best life a human being can lead."

Richard Kraut is here expressing the liberal pluralism of our age, the democratic live-and-let-live mentality that shuns sharp hierarchies of value in the comparative estimation of different lives.

But the next observation, from Richard Taylor, is more judgmental:

There are those among us, possibly the majority, who "do much as their neighbors do and as their parents have done, creating virtually no values of their own, but absorbing the values of those around them. Their lives are lived like clockwork, and thought, which should be the source of projects and ideals, is hardly more than a byproduct of what they are doing... such people are by the ordinary standards that prevail quite happy-- that is, they are of good cheer, greet each sunrise with fresh anticipation, have friends, and spend much of their time exchanging empty remarks and pleasantries with others like them. They are, in a word, contented..."

But they fall far short of eudaimonia, they're "not fulfilled but merely satisfied."

And they expect no trouble from Mr. Deity's gatekeeper.

"God" evolves?

Okay, I know I said in Intro class today that I'd like to discourage further work this semester on God... but I take it back, in case anyone wants to try and shed some light on the "God gene" issue (which Dan Dennett tackled in Breaking the Spell*). Is this good news or not?

...the evolutionary perspective on religion does not necessarily threaten the central position of either side. That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.

It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community. Religion also emboldened them to give their lives in battle against outsiders. Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal. Nicholas Wade, "The Evolution of the God Gene"


Monday, November 16, 2009

art evolves

What's the evolutionary significance of art?

There's lots to say about this. Darwin's Camera, for instance, explores photographic art and the evolutionary/visual imagination. If art is fundamentally an expression of emotion and experience, and of the occasionally-elevated feelings experience sometimes affords, the connections between our biological heritage and our creative productions are inescapable.

Dennis Dutton says something similar, in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution:

Art has been elemental to the ascent of humankind — linking cave drawings, natural selection, and Picasso. Mating habits, sexual selection and Pavarotti. Art, he argues, is not just sublime. It’s instinct, from cave to concert hall. -On Point

Roger Scruton says there's a lot more to it than instinct, in Beauty. (AEI review)

Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane," writes Roger Scruton. "It can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

the miracle of evolution

I've been reading-- okay, listening to-- The Greatest Show on Earth, read by the author and his talented wife (the actress Lalla Ward). Whatever you may think of Richard Dawkins' aggressive brand of atheism, there's no denying his passionate commitment to the public understanding of evolution. The dog angle here is a nice touch, too.

What I think is that evolution makes it possible to live without old-time religion, but doesn't answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Not yet, anyway... but we do seem to be moving in that direction, understanding more of the complexity of life and its origins every day. For instance:

The probability is next to nil that highly complex molecules like RNA, DNA and proteins got created spontaneously through purely random or chance processes. However, the nearly-impossible became possible, i.e. the unlikely set of events became likely, through the mechanism of autocatalysis.

“The more we learn about the unbelievably complex, immensely varied, and yet simultaneously simple origin and development of life on earth, the more it looks like a miracle, and one that is still unfolding. The miracle of evolution.”

Saturday, November 14, 2009

happy time

This is for you, Alex... even though it was the other Philip Zimbardo TED Talk you've been after me to see. I'm sure it's good too, I'll try to squeeze it in. Meanwhile, I'm working on my optimal Time Perspective. Roots, energy, wings: not a bad formula.

Friday, November 13, 2009


We'd just started to discuss Epicurus when the bell rang yesterday in Happiness 101. I was going to mention some of the points Jennifer Hecht makes in Doubt: A History:

Epicurus proclaimed it was time... to explain the world rationally to relieve humanity of fear... there is nothing left to fear: we are going to die, but so what? When it is over, it will be over. Pain happens but either does not last long or is bearable, so let it come if it's going to come. There are no ghostly grownups watching our lives and waiting to punish us. Everything is ok. It is all just happening.

What is more, urged Epicurus, life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it; we might as well really make an art of appreciating pleasure... a joyous cultivation of knowledge...

He believed there was no real point in praying, both because the gods are not listening and because human beings are entirely capable of making themselves happy on their own. Yet, he also said that the act of prayer was a natural part of human behavior and ought to be indulged.

[Similarly], he recommended that people take part in the religious conventions of their country. His central purpose in this seems to have been in line with the rest of his advice, i.e., it promoted a trouble-free life.

Yet more to discuss in "Atheism & Spirituality."

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Just back from school-- Younger Daughter's school, where she got to pose the last question to distinguished visitor (and Little Rock Nine heroine) Minnijean Brown: "Who inspired you [when you were one of the nine courageous young people integrating Central High School in Little Rock in 1957]?"

Minnijean paused and reflected for quite a long time, before replying: "We inspired each other."

Perfect answer. We should all be so lucky as to find such stalwart, inspirational comrades.

But Minnijean is right: it's appalling that children had to lead us out of the morass of institutionalized racism in this country. (See the late David Halberstam's great book The Children.) And it's appalling that their story is unknown by most college students, and Americans in general.

Matthew Chapman

Matthew Chapman, author of Trials of the Monkey, is an atheist (but not a "new" one), a lineal descendant of Charles Darwin, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, a respectful observer of life in Dayton, Tennessee, and a respecter of the humanity of those fellow humans who happen to believe in a divine universal creation. He believes atheists and religious believers should be able to coexist (his answer to the question posed over at the other blog this morning.) Evolution is "everybody's story," but not everybody warms thankfully to it as the spiritual core of our common narrative. Darwin's boy thinks that may be okay.

Here he is at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, in 2001. (btw: I was on the program that year too, plugging my then-new William James book. Wish I'd got his autograph!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

baseball versus football

My colleague and I had a good time yesterday taping "In the Middle," a public access television interview show produced on our campus and scheduled for broadcast on Dec. 26.

Responding to a question about how we go about introducing students to philosophy, we hit upon an interesting cleavage in our respective approaches. "I ask them what they're worried about," said my colleague. Philosophy on her view is the systematic, critical interrogation of the worrisome dimension of life.

I took a different tack. "I tell my students what William James told his: philosophy is just an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly." And, I added, it's also an attempt to think clearly about our hopes and dreams and delights, not just our worries.

"Well," said my colleague, "that's because you're a happy pragmatist."

"And you're a Peircean," I retorted.

It was all in good fun, and in fact it's got us talking about a collaborative project in which we will explore our different wings of the pragmatic corridor in a very applied way: we'll consider the respective merits and liabilities of baseball and football. (She's the football fan.) Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Dining with the Devil"

A heads-up to anyone in the environs of middle Tennessee with an interest in food ethics. A symposium on food, health, and society is in full sway right now, through tomorrow, in my building (James Union Building) on the Middle Tennessee State University campus. A screening of "Food, Inc." (featuring Michael Pollan) will begin at 4 pm in the Tennessee Room, and Mark Bittman (author of Food Matters and long-time New York Times staff writer) will deliver the keynote address at 6 pm.

Lots of interesting talks will be going on all day tomorrow, too, including Stanford scholar Dr. Paula England at 11:30, speaking of "Gender Equality: What's changing? What's not?"

Carl Sagan

Yesterday was the birthday of astronomer Carl Sagan, (books by this author) [and the first official "Carl Sagan Day"]. He was born in New York City in 1934His father was a Ukrainian immigrant who worked in a coat factory, and his mother was a housewife. He went on to become a great scientist. He studied and taught at several prestigious universities and helped advance the study of astronomy and the U.S. space program. And he published a number of books that helped regular people understand ideas about the universe, including Dragons of Eden: Speculations of the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Cosmos (1980),which is considered the best-selling science book ever published in English. He also wrote a science fiction novel, Contact (1985), which was made into a film in 1997.

He said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." Writer's Almanac

Monday, November 9, 2009

value of philosophy

A colleague and I are scheduled to tape an interview on campus tomorrow, to discuss (among other things) the value of philosophy to our students, to the university, and to the culture at large. Just in case we don't get all the right words out, here are two of my favorite sources on this topic-- Bertrand Russell and John Lachs:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect…

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good. Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

Teaching the young involves activities that pull in different directions: the culture’s practices and values must be handed on, but they must also be criticized and suitably revised. In doing the former, teachers act as servants of the past, giving a favorable account of the fruits of long experience. In doing the latter, they labor for the future, presenting ideas for how our practices can be improved. The first activity is centered on sketching the geography of what exists and explaining the rules governing it; the second is about the ways the possible can bring improvement to the actual. The first without the second yields stagnation, the second without the first creates chaos. When properly related, the two preserve what is of value from the past even as they encourage active dreaming about a better future. John Lachs, MTSU Lyceum address, 4.14.09

Saturday, November 7, 2009

still exploring

So... "persons may get lost," in the absence of the philosophically-correct account of psychological continuity and personal identity.

But are we really concerned that people, real flesh-and-blood humans, might literally wander off the reservation and not know who they are, where they've been, where they're going?

This came up in one of my Intro classes last week, before I began to think about my assignment to comment on a paper at the Tennessee Philosophical Association's annual meeting today that raises the specter of lost and confused persons wandering in search of continuity and identity.

Most of the freshmen were puzzled, as I confess that I am too. Is this a real question? Is anyone really afraid that if philosophers don't say the right things about personal identity, then it might get misconceived and-- shudder!-- "persons may get lost"?!

They were reassured, I think, to hear their professor say that one can fail to give an adequate conceptual account, can fail to tell a complete and compelling story about "who I am" without then instantly vanishing in a puff of metaphysical dereliction.

They were reassured not because they were worried about getting lost themselves, but because they questioned the safety and sanity of any philosopher for whom this question might actually precipitate an existential crisis.

Are those who puzzle over personal identity and psychological continuity, in the manner of Parfit, Shoemaker, and Unger quite clear on the distinction between metaphysical puzzle and existential problem that is so important to existentialists, pragmatists, radical empiricists, and others who think common sense can be a buffer against the worst debilities of sustained reflection?

It would be thoughtful (in the sense of considerate, constructive, practical) of philosophers to attempt to say something helpful to Intro students and naive pragmatists about why this style of approach to the perennially inconclusive puzzle of personal identity is constructive and worthwhile. I am assuming that it must be, but still don't know quite how to say it with conviction.

William James famously declared: "The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means." There is an immediacy of perception and self-recognition that only a mind debauched by too much (or the wrong kind of) learning can easily discount. That's why he wanted to give voice to something whose acquaintance he was sure we would have to make non-verbally. There is on this view a vital core of life that words and concepts cannot reach. "I must deafen you to talk..."

The immediacy in question is purported to reveal relations, and qualities of experience, that are personal, intimate, and first-hand. The distinctiveness or '"subjectivity" of persons, the felt-but-not-spoken texture of incommunicable conscious life, is said to be much warmer and much less subject to loss, than is dreamt of in the philosophies of those who would treat knowledge (including personal self-knowledge) as an exclusively intellectual and/or aesthetic phenomenon.

Professor Naylor: "Unless the Personal Continuity Theory can either articulate and defend a middle ground of neither too much nor too little psychological continuity or else find some way to avoid one of the horns of the dilemma, it will be possible for persons to get lost..."

Well, perhaps. But I'm tempted to think that the "lost" will be only those persons who were already lost in the misapprehension that self-knowledge occurs primarily in the brain, or in an unstable relation between the ever-vanishing present and a past or future glimpsed darkly. What of our embodied, natural relations to actual (though changing) places and persons and social structures, to former work environments, to colleagues and co-workers old and new and hypothetical?

When I revisit a place whose shape and significance are irrevocably imprinted on me-- a place, for me, like the University Student Center where I used to be nominally "in charge" (and where today I'll play the role of credentialed pontificator)-- and find myself whisked back to an earlier instantiation of myself, in an instant... well, that's not simply a matter of robust or sparse psychology, is it? My personal identity is inseparable from my past, present, and future social identities, and these are embodied and located in space and time beyond mind.

Or as James might have said: beyond the ever-flowing stream of consciousness, beneath all the selectively-attentive, alternately transitory and stable flights and perchings that sustain our selfhood (such as it is), we have no fixed or core "person" to lose. Persons are explorers, made and re-made by their places, making and re-making those places as they go.

One more thought, for the New England transcendentalists among us: self-possession can be viewed as a quality of self-reliance, in the Emersonian vein. If you're committed to being that kind of non-conformist, the kind not overly-- critics say not sufficiently-- wedded to its own historicity, then you'll be doubly unworried about losing the hobgoblin of self-consistent personhood. You'll be an explorer too. And maybe you'll be lucky enough to arrive back where you started and know more about it. Where have we heard that before, Mr. Eliot? Accelerating Intelligence News