Friday, July 31, 2009

Fishing again

"Evolve, dammit!"

'Nuff said? Dale McGowan's thoughts on bumper fish. I used to have one:


but it kept getting swiped. Once someone left a note on my car wondering indignantly, Mr. Smart Guy, why there are still monkeys?! If my correspondent had stuck around I'd have referred him to Scientific American's response:

This reflects several levels of ignorance about evolution. The first mistake is that evolution does not teach that humans descended from monkeys; it states that both have a common ancestor.

The deeper error is that this objection is tantamount to asking, "If children descended from adults, why are there still adults?" New species evolve by splintering off from established ones, when populations of organisms become isolated from the main branch of their family and acquire sufficient differences to remain forever distinct. The parent species may survive indefinitely thereafter, or it may become extinct.

I'm sure that's the answer he was fishing for.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Another nice Catholic girl sees the light. Did she put the glasses on? Or take them off?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Raising free-thinkers

Dale McGowan has good ideas about how to "parent beyond belief," humbly and respectfully but confidently, in our religion-saturated culture. A good complement to Chris Phillips' Philosophers' Clubs.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

forever young

Just wrote the last paragraph of my little Updike-Williams essay for the next "Baseball in Literature and Culture" volume. I hate shilling for corporate America but I just have to confess: I love this commercial.

A virally-infectious Pepsi commercial featuring a hip-hop-cadenced rendition of the Dylan classic “Forever Young” has been getting a lot of televised play lately. After a slew of rapid-sequence-montage clips drawing on images from sports and popular culture, and before the final, lingering image of Ruth and Jeter capped by the summary slogan “every generation refreshes the world,” we're treated to a split-second of Williams in full swing. That's the immortal image he sought and deserves. In time, let us hope, that ugly other mental picture, the one his wayward son forced upon us, just fades away. The picture of perfection is the one we want to keep.

Monday, July 27, 2009


"Support for NPR comes from the estate of Richard Leroy Walters, whose life was enriched by NPR, and whose bequest seeks to encourage others to discover public radio."

I'd been curious about Richard Leroy Walters too. Turns out he was a homeless millionaire who divested himself of material possessions, except for a radio tuned to NPR.

That's mind-blowing enough. But then his friend and executor said:

"He was an atheist and I'm a very profound practicing Catholic, and I'd never met an atheist," Belle says. "And that just blew my mind that somebody could not believe in the Lord."

It explains a lot about our politics and culture wars, doesn't it, that an intelligent, professional American can say such a thing in public with a straight face?


New Yorker,  7.27.09
"...there are frogs there--who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave..."

Sunday, July 26, 2009


It's a good day for a domestic provocation.

With "spirituality" like this, who needs magic?

Times notes

Of note in today's Times:

* Henry Louis Gates is a repeat victim of high-profile racial profiling, says Stanley Fish. It happened at Duke ("the plantation") years ago. If the police entered my home under the same circumstances I might very well find myself taking a belligerent stance, too, and decline to produce identification immediately upon demand.

“Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years,” Dr. Horvitz said. “Technologists are replacing religion, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.”

The Kurzweil version of technological utopia has captured imaginations in Silicon Valley. This summer an organization called the Singularity University began offering courses to prepare a “cadre” to shape the advances and help society cope with the ramifications.

I taught "Biotechnology and Ethics" last year, we read and discussed "the Singularity." Like other unthinkable things, it may not happen... or it may not happen when Ray Kurzweil and others think it will. But neither is it a mere sci-fi fantasy. Kurzweil may be crazy but he's now on the radar of serious and sober people. We'd better be thinking about how to "cope."

* Dr. George Tiller is only the latest in a long line of tragic victims assaulted or murdered by lunatics who've been stoked by right-wing talk radio hate speech, as Bill Moyers documents. Those of us who preach tolerance must recognize its limits: we must not give the hate-mongers (including all those fairly unbalanced Fox shills) a free pass. They devalue free speech.

* And more happily, it was a pleasure watching the Hall of Fame induction ceremony this afternoon. The Henderson and Rice induction speeches were not that impressive, clearly having been ghosted. But as usual the so-called second-tier inductees stole the show. Joe Gordon's daughter touchingly observed that her Dad, who'd not had a proper funeral, had at last reached his final resting place. Tony Kubek, another warm Voice of the Game from my youth, garrulous as ever, took me back to all those Games of the Week. He and Curt Gowdy were the only game in town, in those pre-ESPN/-Fox Sports days.

Gotta get back to Cooperstown. Mark it: July 25, 2010.

A deathbed non-conversion

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking...the world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides...Five thousand people prayed for me at an Easter service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the largest church in Christendom. A Hindu priest described a large prayer vigil for me held on banks of the Ganges. The Imam of North America told me about his prayers for my recovery. Many Christians and Jews wrote me to tell about theirs. While I do not think that, if there is a god, his plan for me will be altered by prayer, I'm more grateful than I can say to those, including so many whom I've never met, who have pulled for me during my illness. Many of them have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn't been a problem. With reservations about feeble souls, I share the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I, nor would I want to, conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear for absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoting striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature." Carl Sagan

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Dispatch from the cave. Thinking more about memory's unanticipated triggers...

On the road to the water park yesterday we passed one of my former abodes, an apartment where I lived for a year (not the luxury digs referenced previously, but a more cave-like efficiency in Hermitage, TN). It tripped memories of move-in night, August '88, when Dan Quayle's acceptance speech at the GOP convention was on in the background.

What I didn't know then was that I would one day come to think of him as the Sarah Palin of his time. Thank goodness she didn't get to become the Dan Quayle of hers. But I suppose she still aspires to be the next Dubya.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Nashville Retrospect"

Bravo! I've been a Nashvillian for nearly three decades (!) and have always been intrigued by the remnants of a fascinating but under-explored history all around. "The Nashville Retrospect" will fill a gap.

Hecht on happiness

Jennifer Michael Hecht writes a funny, crazy, wise and clever blog, and gives good happiness advice.

Socrates insisted that we ask ourselves how we know what we believe. You like democracy, monogamy, American food, sleeping at night, children raised in families, longevity as a life-defining goal. You like a woman of five foot ten to weigh about a hundred forty pounds. Set a goal of convincing yourself of something you oppose. Pick a hot-button subject, and a reward for yourself if you can shake your own faith in your convictions... The Happiness Myth

I'm looking forward to reading and discussing her book in our "Philosophy of Happiness" class in the Fall.

(Also looking forward to her book-in-progress on Bertrand Russell.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Billy Collins hits too close to home here, but I'm laughing anyway.

(Studies show, by the way, that caffeine is not the miracle fix for this after all... but supplemental sleep may be. Billy and I don't want to hear it, we'd rather buzz around on espresso.)

"man cave"

Meme alert: a friend recently described my Little House as a "man cave," I'd never heard the term before and thought it was kinda goofy. But here it is, the word of the day. The fates seem to favor this one.

A room, space, corner or area of a dwelling that is specifically reserved for a male person to be in a solitary condition, away from the rest of the household in order to work, play, involve himself in certain hobbies, activities without interuption. This area is usually decorated by the male that uses it without interferance [sic.] from any female influence.

Tom retreated to the Man Cave to play his online rpg game.


Another example of just how easy it is nowadays to plant "mind viruses" on the web (whether they spread or stay dormant is still up to the fates, of course):

Noting the dearth of solid "moral holiday" info online, I submitted versions of yesterday's little post on the subject to and to Both were published. I've launched a small meme on the great Cyber sea.

Good thing I'm solid.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"moral holiday"

It doesn't mean running riot, lying, cheating, stealing, & philandering without compunction. (See my discussion in William James's "Springs of Delight," 70f.)

It does mean relaxing, enjoying the moment, stringing enjoyable moments together when you can, "chilling" (see my "License to Chill" in Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy).

Sometimes it means spending a lovely summer afternoon in the park.

"The universe is a system of which the individual members may relax their anxieties occasionally, in which the don’t-care mood is also right for men, and moral holidays in order... I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays." William James

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Ron Bombardi is a gifted philosopher and teacher, a fearless leader, and a trusted friend. He's also a very talented musician. This Fall he'll teach a course on the philosophy of music. He talked about it on a program broadcast by WMOT Sunday.

This is a hot topic lately. The Library of Congress has been sponsoring a series of lectures on music and the brain. Daniel Levitin says the world sings six (kinds of) songs. Steven Pinker says music is "auditory cheesecake."

Does music connect emotions and concepts? Does it express what concepts cannot? Does it need to be anything more than fun? Lots of intriguing questions here.

The great thing about the soundtracks of our lives is that they can be replayed, but each replaying may bring a new experience. And every new/old song can be thrilling in a unique way.

Besides being intrinsically delightful, music is the perfect metaphor of happiness in general. When William James deplored "the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight," it was the music of life that he feared losing. But happily, he noted, most of us can find the "Play" button again. After suffering the "falling dead of the delight," we rebound: "the music can commence again;—and again and again—at intervals."

One of the things I love about morning is the reliably-recurrent tweeting of our avian companions. Theirs seem less labored than ours. There's a lesson.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20, 1969

Will the pace again quicken, in the next 40 years?

What a different world we all thought this would be, by now.

The Times had a nice special section celebrating the still-astonishing feat. Restored video looks crisp... & here's why the Hoax Believers are silly.

“The moon, like a flower
In heaven's high bower,
With silent delight
Sits and smiles on the night.”
William Blake

"Oh, wow. Look at the moon." Dr. Dan Asher

Sunday, July 19, 2009

No Greater Challenge

Captain Picard would've been a good NASA philosopher.

This is the scene in which young Ensign Wesley Crusher tells Picard that "William James won't be on my Starfleet exams." Picard answers, "Nothing really important will be. Open yourself to the past—history, art, philosophy—and all of this might mean something."

Out of nostalgia (I guess) I've been following Wil ("Wesley") Wheaton's tweets. But I'm going to have to let him go. He actually thought it worthwhile, the other day, to inform the universe that he hates (literally) biting his tongue.

He won't miss me, he'll still have 968, 790 followers to regale with such riveting bits of ephemera from a mid-scale ex-celeb's stream of consciousness.

What would Jean-Luc say?

Where do I apply?

I have to agree with Tom Wolfe, for once: NASA needs philosophers.

Or just people with normal curiosity and modest eloquence.

Gene Cernan asked his fellow Apollo 10 astronauts about the moon: "Where do you suppose a planet like this comes from? Do you suppose it broke away from the Earth like a lot of people say?" John Young replied: "I ain't no cosmologist, I don't care nothing about that." Time, July 27 issue

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Oh, boy!"

Those were Walter Cronkite's first words, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. His boyish delight in the space program, and his enthusiasm for the future it seemed to portend, was infectious.

And that's the way it was.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Margaret Mead

Another stirring profession of belief from yesteryear, this one from anthropologist Margaret Mead:

I believe that to understand human beings it is necessary to think of them as part of the whole living world. Our essential humanity depends not only on the complex biological structure which has been developed through the ages from very simple beginnings, but also upon the great social inventions which have been made by human beings, perpetuated by human beings, and in turn give human beings their stature as builders, thinkers, statesmen, artists, seers, and prophets.

We're "part of the whole living world," obviously. Just as obviously, the whole living world has yet to absorb this truth. We have a lot more building and thinking (etc.) to do, but it's great to have this radio archive of role models.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Apollo 11: July 16, 1969

The most audacious public event of my lifetime.

Yes, we can.

Sagan's pragmatic pluralism

Sagan and James: both were humanists, contending that we (each and all, as individuals and as a species) have the opportunity and the capacity to make a constructive difference in the world.

James's variety of humanism was also inseparable from his democratic pluralism: "No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the others, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately, and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom... then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things." Will to Believe

This is a coupling, humanism + pluralism, that I think Sagan shared. He did not share the conventional religious impulse, but neither did he treat it with scorn. The Dawkins-Hitchens "take no prisoners" style may be more entertaining, but it's definitely not more constructive.

Singer on health care

Philosopher/ethicist Peter Singer has a new Times Magazine piece, "Why We Must Ration Health Care." It's been #1 on the "most e-mailed" list for two days. (Take note, all you philosophers who think it's a waste of time to address a wide audience.)

He concludes with an interesting riposte to all those Fox News types who say Americans won't stand for "socialized medicine... just ask the Canadians and Brits." Well, Gallup did ask if they had confidence in their health care systems. The score: 73% in Canada and the U.K., 56% here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

at home in the universe

Can naturalists and humanists be "spiritual," not religious? I've already enlisted Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins as yea-sayers, and Carl Sagan. Varieties of Scientific Experience, based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures ("The Search for Who We Are"), deliberately mirrors William James's famous Gifford-based Varieties.

Sagan admired James. Both were passionate about the human quest to be at home in the universe, on our pale blue dot, "the only home we've ever known."

He was a very good advocate for NASA, for science and rationality, and for the evolutionary worldview. We do speak for Earth, we have walked far.

"Two billion years ago our ancestors were microbes; a half-billion years ago, fish; a hundred million years ago, something like mice; ten million years ago, arboreal apes; and a million years ago, proto-humans puzzling out the taming of fire. Our evolutionary lineage is marked by mastery of change. In our time, the pace is quickening."

A quickening evolutionary pace is not flatly incompatible with NASA's 40-year detour of distraction, but isn't it really time to refocus on our next "final frontier"?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Waking Life"

"I am a philosopher. (As Kurt Vonnegut writes in Timequake, 'I have to be.') I am not a spiritual thinker, much less a spiritualist or a religious advocate of any kind. But it seems to me, at least as a philosopher, that if spirituality means anything it means thoughtfulness... Spirituality, like philosophy, involves those questions that have no ultimate answers... [it] puts at arms' length all of the clever philosophy that scoffs at the big questions or reduces them to mere puzzles and paradoxes." Robert C. Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic

Monday, July 13, 2009


I love Dan Dennett's thoughts on gratitude, in his recent conversation with Richard Dawkins and in "that thing" he wrote about surviving heart failure, "Thank Goodness" - his naturalistic humanism did not merely survive the ordeal but was greatly strengthened by it.

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now...

The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come...

Active gratitude is something pragmatic meliorists understand implicitly, happily paying forward what some of us don't mind calling a spiritual debt, not to a God but to the conditions favorable to life. Just as gratitude does not require a divine object, neither must it target specific persons, typically. But there are always persons to thank, those closest to us certainly, but also those "strangers" whose contributions to medical science, for instance, as in Dennett's case, are literally life-sustaining.

Ronald Aronson has interesting things to say about this too:

So much and many to thank: my parents, people on the other side of the world, those who set aside and today preserve this area as a state park, and on and on. One's map of dependence stretches in every possible direction and across every possible plane, but it is always real and it is always concrete. And it sketches the paths for one's gratitude. It tells, after all, the story of our connections with the world and the universe, and it gives us a core of obligations and a core of meaning. To give thanks is to honor this.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dawkins and Dennett on Darwin and spirituality

"Can we be spiritual but not religious?" Jesus and Mo say no, I say yes... and I have strong ("bright") allies in Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett.

If by "spiritual" you mean something like, "outside of space and time, and continuous with the same conscious memories and experiences forever," they agree: No, we can't.

But, if by "spiritual" you mean something more like "alive to our actual place in an evolving cosmos, unblinking in the face of personal mortality but fully open to the possibility of some naturalized sort of transcendence or other," they agree emphatically: Yes, we can.

(But be forewarned: the video techs intrude themselves regrettably into this uncut post, and really disrupt the flow of a very engaging conversation, about ten minutes before the end; but stick with it, or "ff" thru it... the end is well worth suffering the annoyance. Dawkins' reading from his Unweaving the Rainbow definitely belongs in an anthology of humanist "hymns" that will certainly include Carl Sagan, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and all my other favorite philosophers. But, somebody please slap those techs for me!)

Oh, by the way: Dan Dennett, like Jackie Robinson and William James and many others on whose shoulders we humanists proudly stand, is another pragmatic meliorist in the rich American tradition: there's plenty of goodness is the world, but it needs more. Let's make some.

Calvin, Twit of the Year

The Calvin I like (& his pal Hobbes) express my feelings about Bad Calvin, who despite having said that newborn infants deserve eternal damnation seems to be enjoying an appalling "revival" among young people who think their only "spiritual" options range from mega-smiley Pastor Osteen to the long dead Dark Lord of TULIP (that's "Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints," for those fortunate enough to have escaped that particular form of child abuse.)

When will we have the sense to recognize the value of philosophy, and share it with our kids, before they're so miserably "saved" by the Prophets of doom?

But you gotta love this:

[Calvin] stressed total depravity — the idea that human beings are completely sinful, and can't do anything to earn God's favor. That's a relief to many students who've grown up in church, said Kevin... [wait for it] Twit, who oversees the Reformed University Fellowship at Belmont. Calvinism gives them permission to fail.

"They've been trying to live by their own will power — to be fired up for Jesus. By the time they got to college, they are worn out," Twit said.

Worn out by bad theology. Tell me about it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Speaking of "faithheads"...

(That term, by the way, popularized by Richard Dawkins, is more derogatory and incendiary than I'm generally comfortable with. But sometimes the company one must keep, here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, just makes it bubble up, benign intentions and tolerant impulses notwithstading. Sorry. But I'm leaving it in.)

A religious zealot and publisher in Murfreesboro, Tennessee named Shelton Smith comes in today for what strikes this free-thinker as a fawning and uncritical feature story in the Nashville Tennessean about his "embrace of old-time religion." That's not terribly unusual around these parts, unfortunately.

Smith, an "Independent Baptist," publishes Sword of the Lord. He is committed to halting "spiritual drift" and spreading the Verbal Inspiration of the Bible, the Deity of Christ, His Blood Atonement, Salvation by Faith, New Testament Soul Winning and the Premillennial Return of Christ; Opposing Modernism, Worldliness and Formalism."

Smith contends that only the 1872 King James Bible is inspired. All else is imposture and fraud.

So, inspiration happened once in all of recorded human history? It simply falls to you and me to salute and genuflect and defer and shut up?

Socrates and Emerson (and Twain and Nietzsche) had a lot to say about that benighted suggestion. Why are you and I here at all, if not to enjoy "an original relation to the universe" and so on? But Smith says simply: "There's what I think, and then there is what the Bible says. I'd rather go with what the Bible says."

I'd rather think about it myself, thanks all the same. I'd rather honor the inspiration that offers itself afresh every day, beginning with the sunrise, to me and you and possibly even to Shelton Smith, though I doubt he'd notice.

But what really galls about this story is the gratuitous insult to baseball fans the Tennessean reporter hurls with its first sentences: "Being a Christian is a lot like playing baseball. Get the fundamentals wrong, and everything goes to hell in a handbasket."

"Faithheads" is too kind.

Friday, July 10, 2009

This Jackie believed

He was great on the field, but his "This I Believe" essay (recorded in 1952, re-broadcast this morning on XM's Bob Edwards Show) is even more impressive to me. Jackie, it turns out, was a pragmatic meliorist. Could any contemporary athlete write and deliver with conviction anything remotely so articulate and thoughtful?

"...I believe in the human race. I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man’s integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it—and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist.

My fight was against the barriers that kept Negroes out of baseball. This was the area where I found imperfection, and where I was best able to fight. And I fought because I knew it was not doomed to be a losing fight. It couldn’t be a losing fight—not when it took place in a free society..."

Potato salad

Garrison Keillor agrees with Older Daughter on our patriotic duty to produce and consume quality potato salad on Independence Day ("Unalienable Rights Include Decent Potato Salad"). Somehow I'd missed that one. But I guess it's right up there with sweet corn and rhubarb pie and home-grown tomatoes.

Sorry, kiddo. We'll try to get it right next year.

Gotta have wa

One of the things you (and Manny Ramirez) can learn from baseball: free spirit is not enough. Harmonious team spirit is crucial too. The Japanese call it "Wa". I'm all for it, but I still think you gotta let Manny be Manny. The tall nail sometimes needs to stick out, and you can hang the team's fortunes on it.

Can two cultures coexist? Can many? Can we all just learn to get along?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

SOUR '日々の音色 (Hibi no neiro)'

A sweet message from "Sour"...

"Infinite diversity from infinite combinations," as they say on Vulcan. Or possibly "wa," as they say in Tokyo. Harmony. Cosmopolitanism. Peace.

If we can embrace all the differences

It will shine the sky in rainbow colors...

You can see it in any color, because of your clear feeling
Dont worry about it, lets just go as we are.
If we can embrace all the differences
The rain will stop, and the sky will shine in rainbow colors


I caught this YouTube virus at UP@NIGHT. Thanks, Mitch.

What's important

The family deserted me night before last, invited by friends to dinner and a swim across town.

I'm not complaining. Such occasions offer the rare, golden opportunity to hole up in my Little House for precious undisturbed hours of dedicated work. Or so I choose to call it.

I finally hauled in for a late leftover-swordfish salad dinner(much better than it sounds) at around 9, just in time to dine with ESPN's Baseball Tonight crew, John Kruk and Buck Showalter. They nattered on with great seriousness about such pressing matters as Manny Ramirez's latest display of self-regard and team indifference (he flung his bat after a called third strike) and Ryan Braun's allegedly-insolent suggestion that maybe his Brewers could use more pitching.

I was enjoying my dinner and all the Inside Baseball gossip-trivia, right up until the old green-eyed hydra Meaninglessnessreared up and challenged me to justify spending even a moment on such minutiae. Hardly cosmic, this overwrought attention to overpaid, uneducated athletes and their predictably egoistic bad behvior. Was I wasting my time? Yes, of course. But I mean, was I really wasting my time? What's "important," anyway?

"Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is "importance" in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be." -William James, "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings"

Well, that 's a relief. How 'bout that Albert Pujols?! Wonder how he'll do in the home-run derby next week?

But wait. Shouldn't it give us pause that some things make some of us tingle but not others? And that other people tingle to things we could care less about?

Maybe just a moment's pause, time to reflect that importance is fundamentally, unapologetically a subjective phenomenon. If we're going to insist on ultimate, objective, impersonal importance, we'll be leaving ourselves out of the picture. I'd rather not do that.

But I'll also probably not make a habit of tuning in regularly to John and Buck, either. There are more important unimportant diversions to attend to. Like, say, Joe Torre's Yankee Years...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Drunk on the ground

William James pitied "poor Nietzsche's antipathy," as most of us who were early smitten with Zarathustra eventually do. See Gary Kamiya's "Falling Out With Superman," for instance. Or the alienated teen in "Little Miss Sunshine" who (unlike his hero) eventually reconciles with, and rejoins, the human race. (When Nietzsche Wept is another cinematic tribute that has its moments of insight.)

nietzsche penguinBut somehow the books remain, in some pre-postmodern way detached from their author and standing magnificently apart... as on a tall peak just beyond reach. The Dawn, Human, All too Human, Beyond Good and Evil, Genealogy of Morals, Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, Gay Science, Thus Spake Zarathustra... Works of genius, and of despair that refuses to name and accept its condition. But, with enough of the truth to arrest a young person who knows this can't be all there is, who knows there has to be something better still to come. But (this sensibility attests) it must come here, in this life, and perhaps recurrently, eternally.

James and Nietzsche did have in common a mutual affinity for the heights, bracing and invigorating and (ultimately, forJames) terminal. Mountain hikes became James's "main hold on primeval sanity and health of soul." Maybe he was insane to hike so hard in his condition, at his age (60+ with a fluttery heart), but he might have been crazy not to. In 1899 he told his brother Henry, the novelist, that his "ridiculous cardiac weakness" was inconvenient, that his strenuous hikes had probably strained his heart, but that he nonetheless was "glad I had the experience, even at the price!"

Alain de Boton chronicles the price Nietzsche paid, tracing the bleak objective day-to-day mundanities of

piz corvatsch

his soaring Swiss Mountain philosophy. "Nietzsche spent seven years in Sils-Maria... He would rise at five," work all morning in his small rented room, then hit the peaks. (That's Piz Corvatsch.) In the evening, typically, it was back to the room, a solitary dinner, and an early bed. Sounds stark and easy, and to most of us drearily depressing. But it must have been hard. That's what he liked most about climbing mountains, and writing books: the difficulty and challenge and growth-opportunity ("What doesn't kill me" etc.) of scaling those imposing altitudes. Then, the great payoff at the summit, "a primal delight at being alive to see such beauty."

Again, Nietzsche (the rare tea-totaling German) admired Emerson... who could get drunk sober, simply treading the bare flat ground. (In Nature Emerson famously wrote: "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.")

Me too. Crossing Hillwood High School's playing fields with my dogs, in dappled morning sunlight, thinking only of getting home and having a good breakfast... It happens all the time.

I love the mountains as much as the next philosopher, but I really think it's more about where you plant your head than your feet.

None of which is to deny that feet, particularly feet in motion, are indispensable too. We have walked far, up and down and all around. Walk on.

oldest recorded footprints

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mountain philosophy

While Carolina is still on my mind, I note that William James also visited the area we've just returned from. In 1891 he climbed Mount Mitchell and called it "the most beautiful forest walk (only five hours) I ever made." Robert Richardson notes that he also climbed Roan Mountain and Grandfather Mountain, and on the same trip encountered the mountaineers who inspired his own favorite essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." The moral of that story is that others see the world differently than we do, and it's ok that they do.

That's pluralism, by the way, closely related to cosmopolitanism. More on the precise nature of their relation as soon as I figure out how to say it. Or point to it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Devil's work"

The tragic death of local football legend Steve McNair brings this reaction from his grieving mother: "I don't want to know,'' Lucille McNair said in a telephone interview from her home in Mount Olive, Miss.. "Because the way I see it, it was the devil's work and not God's work.''

A mother's grief at such a moment must be inconsolable, and I wouldn't want to deny her, or anyone, the attempted consolation of religious solace.

But really, now. Humans do "devil's work," and Ms. McNair believes God created humans. The buck stops where?

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Obama's and Appiah's cosmopolitanism...

Kwame Anthony Appiah's excellent 2006 book of the same name was in my holiday reading stack, a perfect complement to James's Pluralistic Universe. Interesting to note that Appiah, like Obama the son of an African father and western mother (from England, not Kansas), had nothing to say about Obama three years ago. Another measure of how startlingly sudden was our pragmatist-in-chief's arrival onto the world scene.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day

Best book ever on the general theme of independence: Richard Ford's Independence Day. (Ford himself prefers Emerson's Self-reliance for "its implicit goal of leaving us as it found us: free.")

It's a great road book, too. The action centers on Cooperstown and the baseball hall of fame. It reflects wisely on just how much, and how little, any of us can help anyone else (our own kids included) be free.

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion;…The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance,"
Essays, First Series, 1841.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Not doing "nothing," just nothing but fun... capped a terrific day in the area with a wonderful dinner at "Salsa's," in this surprisingly hopping little bohemian mountain city. Talented street buskers with handsome doggies, pretty girls, coffee houses, quirky stores ("vintage typewriters priced to move!") at every turn... The holiday's working for us this year, I think. Accelerating Intelligence News