Monday, May 31, 2010


Nancy Sherman is the featured "opinionator" in the latest installment of the new Times philosophy blog "The Stone," with a timely Memorial Day message on stoicism: 
After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”
Put in the context of today’s wars, this could just as easily be a soldier’s narrative about the need to put on Stoic armor and the need to take it off.
That's a message for us all.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

immediate future

If you're in middle Tennessee and you care about the future of life, you can dial up 89.5 FM at 8 a.m. this very morning to hear a local philosophy prof talking with Gina Logue (of MTSU On the Record) about that very topic.

Or catch the live stream at their website. Or download the podcast from iTunes in a day or so. (While you're there, check out On the Record podcast #45, too: "Pursuit of Happiness".)

Or you can watch Charlie Osgood's Sunday Morning on CBS. Or go for a walk. Or cook some pancakes. Or roll over and dream some more.

Whatever. But I'd love to see you on the radio.

Have a great sabbath.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Time-lapse representations of significant events & achievements help us widen the frame of our typically short-term thinking, or they do me anyway. Maybe this will help us think beyond the shuttle? Sort of the same effect as Powers of Ten and the Contact opening...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Deep Play

There's nothing wrong with playing around, playing for fun, playing for no reason and with no other agenda... but play can be serious, too.

Most animals play. Evolution itself plays with lifeforms Whole cultures play with customs, ideas, belief systems, and fashions. But it's a special caliber of play—deep—that leads to transcendence, creativity, and a need for the sacred. -Diane Ackerman [ch1-nyt]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"future of life" on the radio

EDITORIAL CONTACT: Gina Logue, 615-898-5081, or WMOT-FM, 615-898-2800

      Dr.  Phil Oliver Delves into How We Look at Life, Ethics, Planet’s Prospects

(MURFREESBORO) – Dr. Phil Oliver, professor of philosophy, will discuss his new fall 2010 course “The Future of Life,” on the next edition of “MTSU on the Record” with host Gina Logue at 8 a.m. this Sunday, May 30, on WMOT-FM (89.5 and
            Oliver will integrate themes from two previous courses that focused on biomedical ethics and biotechnology with an examination of the sustainability of life on Earth, genetic engineering and humanity’s evolutionary prospects.
             He cites a question from Pragmatism by William James as a starting point for discussion: “The really vital question for us all is, ‘What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?’”
And here's the "happiness" interview I did for "On the Record" last year.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

sponges & springs

Yesterday was the birthday in 1803 of Ralph Waldo Emerson,  in Boston... [Writer's Almanac]

Good excuse to repeat one of my favorite Emerson lines:
"Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books."
This is nothing against books and libraries and old dead philosophers, but-- the message is-- don't just be a sponge, be a spring too. Or, as he also said:
"I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." 
He also said something about his books being in his library but his study being in nature.... Where the springs run deep.

Monday, May 24, 2010


The great but little-known Hypatia gets her due in Agora, a new film reviewed yesterday in the Times. Carl Sagan raised her profile in Cosmos... (text); maybe now she'll make it onto the Top Female Philosopher lists where she should have been all along.

She said: To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

worth every penny

More good publicity (it's all good, right?) for our department in today's Tennessean, under the headline "MTSU avoids cutting programs":
Before the federal stimulus funds arrived, MTSU President Sidney McPhee warned students that the looming state budget cuts might force the university to eliminate entire departments and majors of studies. The social work, criminal justice administration, sociology, anthropology and philosophy departments all were being eyed for the chopping block.
Students reacted with outrage, marching in protest and bombarding the administration with calls and letters of protest.
Wendy Caldwell is a former MTSU student who is working as a cook while she saves money for her next round of classes.
With the Board of Regents considering another 6 percent to 11 percent increase in tuition, the process could take even longer.
Caldwell, who was double-majoring in math and philosophy, launched a Facebook group last year to protest the very idea of eliminating the philosophy department.
"The word philosophy means 'love of wisdom.' You can't have an education without philosophy," Caldwell said.
Philosophy classes taught her how to think, she said, recalling one class in which the professor discussed the link between the philosophy of Taoism and string theory in physics.
"Every penny I've ever spent on higher education was worth it for that moment."
In the end, the 2010-11 draft budget doesn't eliminate any majors or departments. In fact, it creates a brand-new college, the College of Applied, Behavioral and Health Sciences, and tweaks the administrative structures of other departments...

Friday, May 21, 2010

free-thought heroine

In November Jennifer Michael Hecht was awarded the "Free-thought Heroine" prize for 2009, recognizing in particular the brilliant contribution of Doubt: A History to the ongoing project of de-villifying atheists, humanists, naturalists and other free-thinkers. Bravo, Jennifer! Can't wait for the Bertrand Russell book.

The embed code is balking. But you can view her acceptance speech-- "Leaving Our Bodies to Art"-- here.
What I say assumes everyone in my audience is a co-irreligionist. I normally don't speak quite that way...
Works for me.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"odd and pixeled"

I logged on to a live chat with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik yesterday afternoon, discussing his piece in the new issue "What Did Jesus Do?" It's a smart review of the spate of new books on Jesus, including Bart Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted. (Ehrman will be our department's first Lyceum Lecture guest early next year, stay tuned.)

Reminded me of the "biotech & ethics" Friday chats we did a couple years back: rapid-fire, a bit choppy, but fun and challenging and quickly over.

Here was my little exchange. (The excisions marked by [...] indicate moments when all those other unseen chatters rushed in to interrupt with their own agendas. You obviously couldn't do this in the flesh, it would be too much like a presidential press conference.)
[Comment From Osopher] 
Thanks for clarifying the end of the essay. But it still bothers me that you evoke a "mystery" surrounding this man, rightly credited by Jefferson with moments of moral sublimity but also documented by Bart Ehrman and others as having been almost uniformly misunderstood. So my question: what do you see as the unsolved mystery about Jesus of Nazareth?
Adam Gopnik: By "unsolved mystery" I meant only that there are aspects of the Jesus myth that are just never going to be susceptible to rational judgment, and that faith, as everyone says, remains a leap -- foolish or necessary -- but a leap past reason. [...]
[Comment From Osopher] 
So the mystery might be more about us: why do so many find reason so uncongenial?
Adam Gopnik: Because our lives are bounded by the certainty of death, I suppose, and what reason can give us seems, to some -- to so many -- unsatisfying. I'm with Darwin on this one -- enough in life to give anyone meaning, if we make it hard enough -- but I understand the opposite feeling. Much the best account of this, I think-- this double feeling --is in William James's "Varieties Of Religious Experience" [...]
[Comment From Osopher] 
Totally agree about Darwin and James. Thanks for the chat and for the review, I've got to go and pick up the kids now.
Adam Gopnik: Pleasure sharing views; even in this odd and pixeled forum.
And I do totally agree: many of us don't feel a need for Jesus to furnish our lives with meaning, though we admire his message-- which was not exclusively his, of course-- of hope and charity and love and forgiveness etc.  But like William James and Adam Gopnik I must also acknowledge the "double feeling" of so many others for whom sweet reason seems not to be enough.

It is indeed a pleasure sharing views. But I don't think I'll be joining your "mafia family" (an avatar-driven online game, I presume? ), Adam. Thanks for the invite, but I already feel a little guilty for the time I stole to join you online yesterday. But only a little.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Older Daughter's High School sports awards ceremony was last night. She catches.

What else does she now have in common with Joe Mauer, Pudge Rodriguez, Thurman Munson, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, and not many others who wore the misnamed "tools of ignorance"?

A "Most Valuable Player" award.

I think that deserves a post.

Probably a night out for sushi, too.

Better yet: a Sounds game.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Our Time

What an intelligent, insightful, English look at William James and his Varieties of Religious Experience on the latest installment of the BBC's radio program "In Our Time." But one of  the panelists complained near the end that the Americans oddly were planning no public commemoration of the impending centenary of James's August 1910 death. That may have been the only incontestably-false statement on the show.

The William James Society (, in cooperation with the Chocorua Community Association and Harvard’s Houghton Library, is planning a long-weekend symposium, August 13-16, 2010, to honor the life of James on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. In the spirit of James, the symposium, “In the Footsteps of William James,” will be an opportunity to explore the local settings of James’s life and to reflect on James’s ability to encounter experience afresh and approach problems creatively.
The symposium will be held in two places: in Chocorua, NH, and Cambridge, MA, and it will include:
􀂃 opportunities to explore James’s settings in Chocorua, including his summer home and hiking trails, along with performance of period music and stories of his experiences in the area;
􀂃 attendance at the opening of the Houghton Library’s exhibition on James;
􀂃 tour of James’s Cambridge, including his home and work settings;
􀂃 presentations by leading scholars and public intellectuals on James’s life, work, and impact;
􀂃 seminar conversations with James experts to allow more informal and in-depth exploration and reflection.
Please see the William James Society web page (, under Symposium 2010) for more information, as it becomes available, on schedule, speakers, registration, and other attendance information.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

spiritually drained

J&M would like to leave the worldly world behind, too. They're like, y'know, balefully influenced by terse text/netspeak...

But they're not the only ones who need to unplug and reconnect. At least on Sunday. (Beginning next week?)

BTW: here's what says "FTW" means...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

brothers and sisters

It's been raining again, nervous people are probably rushing the depleted stores once more for bottled water and other provisions. But it looks like it'll be a calm, pleasantly cooler day. A good day for reflection. (Like most of the others.)

If you asked me to name the film or stage show that had the greatest impact on me as a young person, I'd have to say South Pacific. I first saw the adaptation of James Michener's tale performed on the large outdoor stage at St. Louis's Municipal ("Muny") a kid, in the intense humid midwestern summertime, in the middle of the civil rights struggles of the '60s, at a moment when I was having my consciousness raised about racial bigotry. I'd just seen Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, [clip] whose impact on me was also profound,  and would soon read my baseball hero Bob Gibson's ghosted memoir From Ghetto to Glory. Dr. King had been shot the previous summer. (I may in fact have seen this show at the Muny as early as 1963, but it was the '69 performance that I'm pretty sure I'm recalling.)

Michener caught a lot of snark from lit critics who thought his approach ham-handed or unsubtle or something, but he was a very good man. His "This I Believe" essay aired yesterday.

Around the world I have lived with my brothers and nothing has kept me from knowing men like myself wherever I went. Language has been no barrier, for once in India, I lived for several days with villagers who didn’t know a word of English. I can’t remember exactly how we got along, but the fact that I couldn’t speak their language was no hindrance. Differences in social custom never kept me from getting to know and like savage Melanesians in the New Hebrides. They ate roast dog, and I ate Army spam, and if we had wanted to emphasize differences, I am sure each of us could have concluded the other was nuts. But we stressed similarities and, so long as I could snatch a Navy blanket for them now and then, we had a fine old time with no words spoken.
It was in these islands that I met a beat-up, shameless old Tonkinese woman. She would buy or sell anything, and in time we became fast friends and I used to sit with her, knowing not a word of her curious language, and we talked for hours. She knew only half a dozen of the vilest English obscenities, but she had the most extraordinary love of human beings and the most infectious sense of this world’s crazy comedy. She was of my blood, and I wish I could see her now.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Commencement addresses are usually forgettably underwhelming. But there have been some good ones, like Paul Hawken's at the University of Portland last year:

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television. 

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequeathed to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
Hawken's talk at Google was more restrained, but it also bore the powerful message of Blessed Unrest: we must stop stealing from the future, and in fact there are hopeful signs that more and more people all around the world are committed to doing just that.  They're beginning to connect, in an atomized and non-ideological movement that is truly inspired. Inspiring.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Like J&M's, the Scientologists' ears ring too when I tell my students I don't respect anyone's belief in "dianetics" and Xenu the inter-galactic volcano-smasher. Sorry.

But thanks to the local chapter of the C of S for the set of L. Ron Hubbard's writings they sent over to my colleagues and me last week. I'll do my best to keep them out of general circulation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

muddy maybe

Not quite through with Mr. Percy just yet...

His Will Barrett went to Lost Cove cave (in Second Coming) to pose a God question he thought would have to yield a definitive answer. But a clear yes or no answer may not be forthcoming, after all. The answer may be a muddy maybe. Indeed. And so my colleagues and I are gratefully still  in business.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Walker's & Shelby's "teahouse"

Found it, tucked away in a box in a drawer: the Brinkwood "tea-house" near the University of the South at Sewanee, TN, constructed by Walker Percy and Shelby Foote in the '30s, visited by me in 1996, & mentioned in yesterday's post. 

I'm still trying, without total success, to see how the world (or the cove, at least) looks through the eyes of a southern Roman Catholic-Existentialist novelist and a Civil War historian (& star of Ken Burns' "Civil War") who appreciated fine bourbon--  "boih-buhn," in Shelby's mouth. 

It was a cave in just such a cove as lies beneath this perch, Lost Cove cave, into which Percy sent his protagonist in The Second Coming to search for God.

No single point of view is privileged, all contribute to the whole.

But the view from this pavilion is absolutely spectacular. I have that picture somewhere too, I'm pretty sure. I'll keep looking.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

lost in the cosmos?

The novelist Walker Percy died twenty years ago today. Twenty! Tomorrow and tomorrow may creep at a petty pace, but yesterday flies.

I was a Percy fan, though I was no fan of his Catholicism or his jabs at my hero Carl Sagan. "Vulgar scientism," really?!

But weird though it may be, Lost in the Cosmos is worth a look if (like me) you're a naturalist and humanist with a "spiritual" feeling for the stars. We need critics like Percy to keep us sharp.

He was a lifelong pal of the Civil War historian Shelby Foote. They built a stone "teahouse" pavilion together on a hill in Sewanee, Tennessee in the 1930s. I'll see if I can dig up the photo I took there, what, fifteen years ago already?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


To all the Moms in my life:

Happy Mother's Day.

These are for you.

And especially for you, Mom.

Phyllis Easterday Oliver

Saturday, May 8, 2010

walking the trail

Another earnest treasure from the '50s "This I Believe" vault. There are many ways to light a candle. Louise ("We Took to the Woods") Rich: 
So now I have grown up. I don’t believe in myself anymore, not in myself alone. I do believe in myself as a member of the human race. I believe in the decency and sympathy and kindness of every man and woman and child that I meet. Nobody, not even Big Louise, can walk the trail alone. I know that now.

I believe also that I have an obligation. Whenever I see one of my brothers or sisters in trouble—a car off the road, the need of a cup of tea in my shabby living room by the elderly lady down the road who is lonesome—I am privileged to have the opportunity to repay, in a small measure, my debt.
I don’t know about God. He’s too big for me to understand. But I have seen his visage reflected in the faces of the people who have helped me through my hard times. I hope to live so that someday, someone will say, “Louise Rich? Oh sure, I know her. She isn’t so bad. She’s human.”
I believe in humanity.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

unbroken thread

Will the thread remain unbroken? That's the great mystery the future poses. 
The secrets of evolution/Are time and death/There's an unbroken thread that stretches/From those first cells to us
The fourth installment in the Symphony of Science series, which I missed somehow back in January and February in my haste to discover "the poetry of reality": 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

specious present

The great thing about living in a place visited by a natural catastrophe that's been widely reported: calls and emails from out-of-towners from whom one rarely hears. Thanks to you all for checking in, we're fine.

I'm actually more bothered by how quickly we resume "normal life" than by the precipitating event, now that the water line is dropping. No, not bothered... bemused, struck, bewildered, sobered. I just wonder how much else we fail to extract the full meaning of, when we can so quickly turn the page on a thousand-year flood. For better or worse, we've learned to live in the specious present. Better, probably.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

an exception

Wonderful line in Dean McDaniel's obit (which sounds like a product of his own pen): 

Teaching Shakespeare’s tragedies for four decades left him with the distinct impression that almost everyone dies in the end, though he had hoped that perhaps in his case an exception would be made

Many now entertain this "hope," and I'll be teaching a course in the Fall (The Future of Life) that will take a closer look at it. Wish the Dean could be there.

Monday, May 3, 2010

John McDaniel

Distressing news from our interim Dean this morning:
It is with great sadness that we announce the death this morning of John McDaniel. In his fortieth year of service to MTSU, he had served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts for more than a quarter century, and was widely known for his intelligence, wit, and wisdom. He leaves behind his wife Jean, sons Scott (Donetta) and Craig, and three granddaughters.
Dean McDaniel was a great friend and lifeline to our department, at a time when many of his "superiors" would have been pleased to lose the philosophy program entirely. He stood with us.

He was a great friend and unstinting source of encouragement to me personally, and a special breed of academic administrator-- equally at home in the worlds of literary scholarship and of the great American pastime (he was once a hot Pirates' prospect).

When word of his latest, now sorrowfully last, illness got around last Fall he held his head high and resolved to "take this one on like all the other afflictions that have come my way in recent times: one step at a time."

He told me how lucky I was to have been mentored by John Lachs. I was also very lucky to have learned from John McDaniel.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

middle-aged brains

Good news, before we float away in the Great Deluge (it's been raining hard pretty steadily for two days, my neighbor's lawn is now a rapid), from  “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind,” by Barbara Strauch and reported by Tara Parker-Pope:

We’re brought up to think we’ll enter middle age and it will be kind of gloomy. But as scientists look at real people, they find out the contrary. One study of men found that well-being peaked at age 65. Over and over they find that middle age, instead of being a time of depression and decline, is actually a time of being more optimistic overall.
So what kinds of things does a middle-aged brain do better than a younger brain?

 Inductive reasoning and problem solving — the logical use of your brain and actually getting to solutions. We get the gist of an argument better. We’re better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution. They found social expertise peaks in middle age. That’s basically sorting out the world: are you a good guy or a bad guy? Harvard has studied how people make financial judgments. It peaks, and we get the best at it in middle age.
Best of all:
Exercise is the best studied thing you can do to your brain. It increases brain volume, produces new baby brain cells in grownup brains. Even when our muscles contract, it produces growth chemicals. Using your body can help your brain.
Alright! I'll go and get my kayak right now.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

quaking quacks

Speaking of pagan holidays: some events just totally defy rational explanation, J&M know.
Henceforth the creation of Boobquake: A day of action that calls on women worldwide to dress scandalously and prove wrong the Iranian cleric who blames natural disasters on immodest cleavage. Led by US's Purdue University student Jennifer McCreight, a 24-hour protest was staged, codenamed Boobquake on Monday. -"Boobquake Protest" Accelerating Intelligence News