Friday, April 30, 2010

climb every mountain

It's important to have nonagenerian role-models.

Charles Houston died in September at age 96. He was a physician, an impassioned proponent of universal health care, a humanitarian, and climber. In the 1930s he led an assault on the imposing K2, and survived a catastrophe in which he'd estimated his party's chances to be no more than 1 in 10. He now thinks his friend and climbing-partner Art Gilkey sacrificed himself for the group.

Why climb a mountain? Because it's an adventure, a challenge, and a growth opportunity. We must always try to exceed our reach, and do things we think may be beyond us.

Bill Moyers interviewed him a few years ago. He's an inspiration.

[UPDATE: I didn't realize, when I posted this on Friday morning, that Friday's night's broadcast of Bill Moyers' Journal would be his last. Those are big shoes he's leaving for someone to fill. Friday's Fresh Air was devoted to him. He's now officially supplanted Jimmy Carter as my favorite Southern Baptist. He was already my favorite living Texan. (R.I.P., Molly Ivins.)]

And, for the record on this Walpurgisnacht Day:
On this day in 1852, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, recording his observations of the woods and fields around Concord, Massachusetts:

"Down the Boston road and across to Turnpike, etc., etc. The elms are now generally in blossom and Cheney's elm still also. The last has leaf-buds which show the white. Now, before any leaves have appeared, their blossoms clothe the trees with a rich, warm brown color, which serves partially for foliage to the street-walker, and makes the tree more obvious. ... It is a beautiful day, — a mild air, — and all farmers and gardeners out and at work. Now is the time to set trees and consider what things you will plant in your garden. Yesterday I observed many fields newly plowed, the yellow soil looking very warm and dry in the sun; and one boy had fixed his handkerchief on a stick and elevated it on the yoke, where it flapped or streamed and rippled gaily in the wind, as he drove his oxen dragging a harrow over the plowed field. [...] Dodging behind a swell of land to avoid the men who were plowing, I saw unexpectedly (when I looked to see if we were concealed by the field) the blue mountains' line in the west (the whole intermediate earth and towns being concealed), this greenish field for a foreground sloping upward a few rods, and then those grand mountains seen over it in the background, so blue, —seashore, earth-shore, — and, warm as it is, covered with snow which reflected the sun. Then when I turned, I saw in the cast, just over the woods, the modest, pale, cloud-like moon, two-thirds full, looking spirit-like on these daylight scenes. Such a sight excites me. The earth is worthy to inhabit." Writer's Almanac

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Socrates offside?

Bushra showed us the philosophers' football (soccer) match from Monty Python on Monday.

They're going for a re-match soon...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

So long

When you're tired of final report presentations you're tired of life. I don't want them to end. Yesterday's were outstanding, again. 

Miso's latest interview reinforced our darkest fears about Islamic intransigence and opacity, but I'm clinging to the hope implicit in Greg Mortenson's humane vision: educate the women, and eventually the young men-- their sons-- will stop incinerating themselves and our world. Meanwhile, let's see what we can do about those pick-ups with their confederate flags and their blustery Know-Nothing patriotism.

Elizabeth and Miranda tried to share The Secret with us. I admit, I'm not the most open and receptive audience for that. I've tried, especially at home; but I'm too pragmatic to think that a wishing-cap world is more than a pipe-dream. I do agree that positive thinking is good, when it motivates positive action.

Kyle and Matt gave us their version of the atheism-spirituality synthesis. There was nothing in it to dispute, so far as I'm concerned. Once again my boy Dewey got a shout-out. Spirituality is all about human connectedness across time and space, "the continuous human community" etc. That's what I've been talkin' about!

And then Dean graced us with a poem, the last stanza of which provides a perfect coda:
So rest my friend this final day,
 Your body's all that's gone.
Your Spirit lives in memories,
For now, Old Friend, "So long."
I'm so glad we had this time together... 

But "There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.--Farewell!"

Sapere aude!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

stairway from heaven

Or is that a stairway to heaven-on-earth, to eternity here-and-now? Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Brief Insight

Monday, April 26, 2010

philosophy funnies

I may regret this. But it may be tons of fun, too.

I try not to do the same course twice, or repeat myself in class more than necessary. We did Simon Critchley's Book of Dead Philosophers and Robert Richardson's William James for the first time this year, for instance.

So yesterday I signed off on a decision for Intro in the Fall: we'll read comic books. Sent the bookstore my order. They call them graphic novels now, but comics is exactly what they are. Is this pandering? I prefer to call it pedagogical experimentalism, and philosophy for beginners.

We'll do Logicomix too. Who'll have the last laugh?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

fuu-ture shock

The dawn blog is still slumbering, though it continues to register my tweets and "day-blog" posts (including this one) in its right margin, A glance at WordPress's so-called "support forums" shows I'm not alone, others have also mysteriously misplaced their "publish" option. I'll leave the geeks to their business, then. Fueled by sugar and starch and carbonation I'm sure they'll have us up and running over there again before you can say "gadget and widget."

So, here we are again this morning: sitting out back under the re-purposed port awning, birds in full voice all around, Old Sol peeking past the neighbors' gable, new possibilities pleading for recognition. After the rain and gloom of yesterday, this clear and magnificent dawn is especially reassuring.

Yesterday was stormy, so I didn't get to accept my student's invitation to attend the Laotian New Year festivities as his escorted guest. Rain check, please!

I did get to drive the Daughter Taxi, though, from Laser Quest to Love Circle to home to Love Circle... I really need to get that meter installed, I'm losing a lot of income running a free service. My wife insists this goes with the parental job description. I don't recall being quite so dependently mobile as a pre-driving teen, but then there's a lot I don't recall.

Didn't even get to enjoy many snatches of the Yanks-Angels game, after an inning or so the local weather team monopolized the airwaves with frightful satellite-tracking images and warnings that my responsible spouse took to heart. I'm a fatalist about weather, though about little else. Just don't ask me to duck and cover in the hallway, I'd rather be whisked to Oz.

I did find a few moments to spend with Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, which was officially released on Earth Day and just arrived in the mail. That's not a typo, the stuttering vowel signals that this isn't our grandparents' planet and it's not their "future" (or our grandchildrens') either. It's ours. What will we do with it today?

He's such a good writer, bearing such a sober message: the future is now.
So how did it happen that the threat to our fairly far-off descendants, which required that we heed an alarm and adopt precautionary principles and begin to take measured action lest we have a crisis for future generations, et cetera-- how did that suddenly turn into the Arctic melting away, the tropics expanding, the ocean turning acid? How did time dilate, and "100 or 200 years from now" become yesterday?
Good question. The good news is, he thinks we do have a future. A fuu-ture. I'm eager to talk about it in "Future of Life" in the Fall, and on the radio soon too. Stay tuned for programming details.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I am risen

My "experimental" dawn blog Up@dawn is a year old today... and for the first time in a year, it's balking at my attempt to publish. So here's what I was going to say there this morning:

That first cautious post of 4.24.09, "rise and shine," announced a simple plan to keep regular hours and harvest some early thoughts before they've withered under the critical glare of mid-day. The point was motivation, not so much to haul out of bed early-- I  do that by inclination and habit anyway, most days-- but to capture some of those fleeting auroral moments before they evaporate forever; and then notch 'em (like old Thoreau said) on my stick.

My grad school mentor John Lachs taught me to write stuff down before doing anything else, and it's still the most effective writing strategy I know. Rise, write, wake, walk, work, re-write (and, oh yeah, don't forget in the meantime to enjoy life): the  perambulating rhythm of it suits me, and I like the hours.

 The urgencies of academic dailiness took the blog over, when school started in August. The topical agenda each week-day then largely reflected whatever we were to read and discuss in class. But we finished our last required text yesterday in Intro, so I can again pretty much let what Henry would have called the "genius" of every new dawn dictate these posts 'til class cranks up again.

That's a bit scary, but inviting too: I can't wait to see what's on my everyday liminal rising mind at daybreak. Often, not much; but once in a while something will dawn fresh. Least I can do is show up.  As Nietzsche reminds, "There is many a dawn which has not yet shed its light." (Rig Veda)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy 40th Earth Day!

Today is Earth Day. And it's also the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day — held on this day in 1970 and widely considered to the birth of the modern environmental movement.
Earth Day's founder was a senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson. His goal was to force environmental issues onto the national agenda. Before 1970, stories about the environment were almost never reported. One Earth Day organizer said that back then, "Environment was a word that appeared more often in spelling bees than on the evening news."
In 1969, an oil pipe ruptured just off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, causing 200,000 gallons of crude oil to burst forth and then slowly leak out and spread over an 800-square-mile slick. It took 11 days to plug the hole. The oil poisoned seals and dolphins, whose corpses washed up onto California beaches, and it killed thousands of seabirds as well. Senator Nelson visited the site of the enormous ecological disaster and was outraged that nobody in Washington seemed to be concerned about the great devastation to the natural environment. And then he realized that many people simply didn't really know.
So he proposed a national "teach-in," an event to take place on universities campuses around the nation, one that would educate the public, raise awareness on environmental issues, and make politicians pay attention to these things, so that they would make laws to protect the environment in order to, as he said, "stem the tide of environmental disaster."
He saw how successful the anti-war protestors were at getting media coverage — and therefore, making politicians take notice — and he decided to base his campaign for environmental awareness on their model. He also hoped to infuse the same student anti-war energy into the environmental cause. He proposed setting aside one day a year as a national day of observance about environmental problems. The New York Times picked up the story in late September 1969, a great boon to the grassroots organizers of the campaign, who had no Internet to spread the word.
At first, Senator Nelson called it National Environment Teach-In Day, but his friend, a New York advertising executive suggested "Earth Day," especially catchy since it rhymes with "birthday," and that's what the press began to call it. Historian Adam Rome has called Earth Day the "most famous unknown event in modern American history."
About 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. They gathered at assemblies in high school gyms, at university plazas, in suburban city parks. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Gaylord Nelson had graduated from law school, people met up at 4:45 a.m. for an "Earth Service," where, according to one report, they "greeted the sunrise with a Sanskrit invocation and read together from Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Thoreau, and the Bible." Girl Scouts distributed pamphlets that Wisconsin grad students had written, which gave household tips for helping to preserve the environment. Tens of thousands met up in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park — and stayed there for days — and 100,000 streamed into Fifth Avenue in New York City. People celebrated spring weather and gave impassioned political speeches about environmental issues.
Though unstructured and somewhat incohesive, Earth Day was hugely successful. Environmental issues found a prominent place on the political agenda. Earth Day in April 1970 helped lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by the end of that year (the EPA was created December 2, 1970), as well as to the passage of legislation like the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts. Writer's Almanac

"Age of Wonder"

Happy Earth Day!

One of the things I really like about my daily 50-minute commute to school (and it's at least that long back again!) is, most days, the opportunity to hear a terrific Bob Edwards interview on XM satellite radio. Day before last, for instance, Richard Holmes spoke of The Age of Wonder. Sounds like Dawkins was right in Unweaving the Rainbow, to insist there's no need to fear science as a source of disenchantment with the world's natural poetry.

Holmes concludes:  "We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe." 

One of the surprise stars of this story is Charles Darwin's grandpa Erasmus, who was already defending a sophisticated multiverse cosmology in the 18th century. And he was not a bad poet.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

final reports begin

We had a great start today with final report presentations. Alex M. offered a thoughtful comparison of Tolkien's Ring with Plato's (Gyges'). Alex S. presented a very thorough and, to some, chilling peek at the brave new world of transhumanism and "living long enough to live forever." Both prompted calm, civil, instructive discussion. So did Kimberley's "Office" report.

But Chris's "Boondock Saints" report and his discussion question-- Do we need people like this [vigilantes who storm a courtroom to murder a defendant, convinced that they're doing God's work] in the world today?"-- provoked a degree of heat that I hope will cool to a reflective glow. I admit I got a bit heated myself.

Do we need armed vigilantes? Like a hole in the head. But we've got 'em in spades. Hobbes would've called them agents of the bellum omnium, representatives of the state of nature and destroyers of the social contract. Some of us think the best name for them is simply "terrorist."

Commenting on Alex's transhumanist report, I mentioned Ray Kurzweil's teenage game show debut in 1965. Was he already thinking about living forever?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spring '11 student survey

What course(s) would you like to see offered at MTSU next Spring, or eventually? Click "reply" and rank your preferences, if any. Please indicate your current student status. (MTSU Students: pass this along to any of your peers you think might be interested in commenting.)

__ Native Wisdom and Environmental Responsibility. Environmental ethics course with an indigenous (esp. Native American) emphasis. What can we learn from traditional cultures about our relation to the land, the planet, and other forms of life? And what are the limits of "tribal" ethics?

__ Experimental Philosophy. The new "X-Phi" movement is really not new, American philosophy has always emphasized experimentalism. Empiricism has always sought "data." But maybe its time has come again?

__ Facts & Values. Is it really true, as David Hume said, that you can't get an "ought" from an "is"? Was Sam Harris right in his recent TED Talk and his forthcoming book to oppose that view? What are the implications of a thoroughly naturalized ethics?

__ Experience. How much deference do we owe to other persons' experience when it differs from, or even contradicts, our own? What kind(s) of pluralism should we defend and practice? We'll look at James's Varieties of Religious Experience, Sagan's Varieties of Scientific Experience, and Emerson's famous essay "Experience," among other sources.

__ [Your suggestion(s) here].

walking and spirituality

Nietzsche said the best thoughts come while walking. That's my single point of unequivocal agreement with him.
In Turin and elsewhere Nietzsche often wrote in his head while out walking, believing that 'a philosopher [is] a man who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, dreams extraordinary things; who is struck by his own thoughts as if from without...Nietzsche in Turin
 Andre Comte-Sponville is drawn to Nietzsche's walking side too, in his Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Walkers are affirmers and accepters, participants in "the innocence of becoming," lovers of fate and what is. Amor fati, not because the universe and reality are uniformly good but simply because "nothing else exists." Take it or leave it? "Wise men take it." This is Nietzsche's cosmic optimism.

Spinoza was another who took it all, but he disagreed with Nietzsche's revaluation program. We're part and parcel of all that is, and our values are too. We should not deny them, much less overturn them. This is where Spinoza diverges from Nietzsche, and of course Spinoza is right. This is acceptance. It has nothing to do with optimism. "Nothing?" Now that's going a bit far. "Acceptance" has at least as much to do with optimism as living with purpose and sanity have to do with it.

William James was a walker too, and-- as we were saying in class yesterday-- he rejected the cosmic pessimism of Henry Adams. But he also preferred not to call himself an optimist. Wise meliorists "take" some parts and resist others.  That's not "seeing the bright side of everything," it's just seeing and bringing brightness where we can. 

That's the spirit that can open us up to the world. It's the spirit of walking.

Monday, April 19, 2010

final frontier

"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces dismays me." Blaise Pascal

"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces reassures me." Andre Comte-Sponville

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Quoted Annie Dillard on where I expect to spend eternity, in the dawn blog this morning. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is on my short list of favorite 20th century works.

"Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it..."

This amateur flip cam production nicely conveys her youthful romance with seeing.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

future of life

Native Americans understand implicitly the importance of biodiversity, of grasping our inter-dependency with the rest of nature and life. So does E.O. Wilson, who already wrote the book (The Future of Life) whose title I'm cadging for my eponymous Fall course.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Gifford Lectures

The same series of "Natural Theology" lectures William James participated in, at the turn of the last century in Scotland, was most recently continued with Michael Gazzaniga's "What We Are" last Fall.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

John Dewey

Wanted to complement today's dawn post with some video of Andre Comte-Sponville, and there is some on YouTube-- in French. So for fluency's sake, here's his kindred spirit Dewey. Both value fidelity.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Americans' fear and denial of science and reason is a danger to democracy and the possibility of progress. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What We Owe All Children

A year ago today I presented this slideshow at the MTSU Honors College, as part of a series on "gifted" education.

View more presentations from MTSU.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Back-to-back 9th inning jacks from Pujols and Holliday to tie last night's Cards-Brewers game, after they'd trailed all night; and just like that  we're reconciled, my team and I. (Doesn't matter that Milwaukee answered them right back for the walk-off win.) Fortunately the camera didn't pan to Big Mac on the bench at that moment. That's going to be the fly in the ointment all summer.

James was right: the key to wisdom is knowing what to overlook.
And, an entirely unrelated thought: Sartre wrote "Existentialism is a Humanism." Someone should do "Theism is not A-theism." It's on my to-do list.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


There's not really anything new about experimental philosophy ("x-phi"), as Anthony Appiah explains in Experiments in Ethics. American philosophy in the spirit of James and Dewey is all over it. But some have been championing it's revival as a welcome alternative to the armchair philosophizing that has become so prevalent even among empiricists. I'm thinking it may be time to offer a course at MTSU. Anyone interested?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

another sailing meme

Not sure if it's the heavy medication (Day 3) or the persistent "Sail On" meme that's taken up residence in my brain (Day 3!) that has me feeling so, umm, recurrent and discommoded. Maybe I can shake it with this...

Friday, April 9, 2010

In Love w/Life

I made reference to two accomplished contemporary philosophers of my personal acquaintance in class yesterday, one a very successful epistemologist, the other my old and youthful mentor. It would be appropriately discrete to withhold the identity of the former (so I'll just say, to whom it may concern: here's an interesting homepage...and here's a brand of North Dakota philosophy* I like); but I'm always happy to introduce the latter.** This book in particular has very special personal significance for me, as it did for my Dad. Like Bob Solomon, he has a lot to say about a lot, and he thinks love makes the world go 'round...

* Seriously, check out the podcast. This program is very professionally done, and its host Jack Russell Weinstein is a very good philosopher.

** And just to be sure I'm not being overly subtle, in my discretion, about the instructive contrast between my two acquantances: check out this other John Lachs title: The Relevance of Philosophy to Life.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sail On

Neither an optimist nor a pessimist be, said William James. Meliorism is the way. Sail on, but beware. "Shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities of life." But the delight of smooth sailing is worth a considerable risk.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


A&S was fun yesterday, though I had to croak my way thru it. We talked about a lot while wrapping up Dawkins' "Rainbow," including online gaming (like World of Warcraft) as potentially civilizing (but also potentially debilitating).

That led Matt to mention of "Chatroulette." Apparently (as Lauren said)  it's not entirely perverse. (But the revolting description, coupled with Jordan's mention of Muppetts (speaking of Kermit) led me to the irresisitible/disgusting thought of them pulling their own strings. Sorry! But I can't help it, hahaha.

In spite of all, I'm still with Emily Dickinson and the Dalai Lama: it's Spring, hope's alive, the future's not dead yet.

Hoping to be in full voice soon...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

selective attention

Attention is crucial, and limiting. The brain let's you see what it anticipates. The ursine version:

Weird! And cautionary. "Be suspicious" of what you think you know, especially if "everybody" knows it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Opening Day!

Kinda like Eternal Recurrence, or resurrection, as Roger Angell evokes it. I just think of it as a return to life.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter

I've tried to lay claim to this pagan holiday myself, as symbolic (in secular terms) of the "return to life." Richard Dawkins would give me a hard time for this. Bad poetry, he'd call it. But I still embrace the Spring and its promise of a new purchase on life... soon as I can shake this "pointless" virus. Officially, after all, this is Opening Day.

(Russell Blackford on Easter, and on the disturbing new rancor in the atheism vs. faith debate.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010


What another of my favorite novelists, Wallace Stegner, believed in...
Conscience, not as something implanted by divine act, but as something learned from infancy from the tradition and society which has bred us...Man is a great enough creature and a great enough enigma to deserve both our pride and our compassion, and engage our fullest sense of mystery. I shall certainly never do as much with my life as I want to, and I shall sometimes fail miserably to live up to my conscience, whose word I do not distrust even when I can’t obey it. But I am terribly glad to be alive...
He was a Humean: social tradition rules, and mostly rules well. Except when it doesn't. Everyone should read Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety, Spectator Bird... 

optimist's holiday

Best Easter-setting novel ever, Richard Ford's The Sportswriter. I'm going to go lie down now and re-read it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Emerson on Thoreau

Andrew raised a question yesterday about the state of relations between Emerson and Thoreau, wondering if it was true that the former said unkind things about the latter at his funeral. I think I can disconfirm those rumors. No foolin'...

His robust common sense, armed with stout hands, keen perceptions and strong will, cannot yet account for the superiority which shone in his simple and hidden life. I must add the cardinal fact, that there was an excellent wisdom in him... It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great... No college ever offered him a diploma, or a professor's chair; no academy made him its corresponding secretary, its discoverer or even its member. Perhaps these learned bodies feared the satire of his presence. Yet so much knowledge of Nature's secret and genius few others possessed... The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eulogy of Thoreau (1862) Accelerating Intelligence News