Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More CoPhi comics

Love these exam day funnies, courtesy of Earl and Hicham...

Exam day advice

Here’s the best test-prep advice I can pass along:
If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently. William James, “Gospel of Relaxation

If you’ve been up all night cramming, in other words, good luck. You’ll need it. But if you’ve been diligent, have steeped yourself in the subject all semester long, and either went out to play or to an early bed last night, your luck will be the residue of design. You’ll do fine.
But don’t try too hard to relax.
It is needless to say that that is not the way to do it. The way to do it, paradoxical as it may seem, is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not.
Care tomorrow. Today, just show up and do your best.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hegel was not a Cubs fan

Probably not a Cards fan either. But I hit upon a fun new way of trying to explain Hegel yesterday in Co-Phi, inspired by an essay on 19th century St. Louis Hegelians Henry Brokmeyer and W.T. Harris:
Hegel’s progressive unfolding [of rational consciousness, geist, Utimate Reality] thrived on conflict, what Hegel’s popularizers (but rarely Hegel himself) referred to as “thesis and antithesis.” Hegel stuck to lofty abstractions like Being (thesis), Nothing (antithesis) and Becoming (synthesis.) Henry Brokmeyer, not so much. His unimpeachably practical list of theses and antitheses encompassed nearly every aspect of American life: religion vs. science, abolitionism vs. slavery, St. Louis vs. Chicago.
It just so happens that St. Louis defeated Chicago on Sunday to keep their flickering MLB postseason hopes alive. What could be the "world-historical" significance of that? Or of the fact that the lowly Astros knocked the Cards off last night, dropping the Braves' magic number to 2?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say: none at all. But I still like Hegel's largest message, as reported by the authors of our Co-Phi text. "We're all in this together." I wonder if they came to that after a hit of nitrous? Or after reading "On Some Hegelisms"...

"The interest of history is detached from individuals." Squashed Hegel

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Atheist spirituality

And snark. More Co-Phi comics...

Funny, Hicham, but next time I teach "Atheism & Spirituality" I'll again be debunking the notion that atheists don't believe anything (or have any content for their pamphlets). For instance, check out Andre Comte-Sponville's Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.

This coming Spring semester, btw, I'll be teaching "Atheism & Ethics"...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


John & John Jr., together on our campus on Tuesday. John Sr. is one of my heroes. He's visited my classes in the past, maybe again...

A funny collaboration

Students have been putting up some funny graphics on our new in-house collaborative course website, CoPhilosophy.  They're vindication enough for me, if I'd needed any, for our masthead quote: 
The pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of 'co'-William James 
Here's a small sample. Keep 'em coming, folks.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


A new blog is devoted to exploring the correspondence between brothers William and Henry James. The Philosopher and The Master, toe to toe (or pen to pen). Should be fun to follow.

A sample post:


Wm to H'ry, July 15, 1865. Age: 23

"No words, but only savage inarticulate cries can express the gorgeous loveliness of the walk I have been taking....How often my dear old Harry wd. I have given every thing to have you by my side to enjoy the magnificent landscape of this region."
Wm seems to be feeling better.  The plea for H'ry's company is a motif that runs through the entire correspondence.  Though he claims that words can't express the loveliness of his walk, much of the letter sets out to achieve just that.  The return address reads "Original Seat of Garden of Eden."

Lonely, but feeling adventurous

Monday, September 19, 2011

More perspective

This evokes for me the same feeling Carl Sagan was trying to awaken, from further out: a sense of ourselves as voyagers on Starship Earth, a single species hugging a fraction of a dot, with the solar winds in our sails.
 A time-lapse taken from the front of the International Space Station as it orbits our planet at night. This movie begins over the Pacific Ocean and continues over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica. 

Visible cities, countries and landmarks include (in order) Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles. Phoenix. Multiple cities in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Lightning in the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon. Also visible is the earths ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars of our galaxy. Raw data was downloaded from;
The Gateway To Astronaut Photography of Earth " ". Virtualdub was used to create the final movie. You can see more beautiful images of our universe at:
As Jerry Coyne comments, "This should give you a 'spiritual' experience." Amen. Pass the plate, NASA.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Who moved my wallpaper?

Kat did, replacing the desktop image in our classroom with a clever scene involving pious fish who can't imagine anyone but a God stooping to care for their fishbowl.

She's right, mine was a bit blurry. After all, it was taken from a distance of 3.7 billion miles.

It's really Carl Sagan's adjoining text, though, more than the image of a miniscule fraction of a dot, that's meant to convey clarity. So let me restore my sense of perspective, mine and Matthew Beckler's, here and now.
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Look again at that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam... Pale Blue Dot

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Vulcan way

Lots of interesting group discussions in Intro yesterday, pertaining to Aristotle and Stoics and Skeptics and African and indigenous American philosophies.

Some wondered how Aristotle could speak so earnestly of living a life of virtue and at the same time, without irony, defend the Athenian institution of slavery. Same question arises much closer to home with Mr. Jefferson. ("All men are created equal," right? And women.) Can we let either of them off the moral hook, on the grounds that they were simply products of their time and place? Can we excuse ourselves, when a later age calls us to account for who knows what?

Then there are the extreme skeptics Pyrrho, Sextus Empiricus and their followers. (Can a skeptic really be a "follower," btw? Nowadays you can join the Skeptics Society. Should you?) How can the refusal to believe anything at all be therapeutic? Well, JMH says theirs was the philosophy of "no"... so maybe Sally Brown could explain it to us? She's not the most serene Stoic, but she does seem to enjoy not committing to any particular philosophical conclusion.

Interesting discussions surrounding indigenous American and African philosophy, too. Are we all related ("mitakuye oyasin"), and all a part of nature? Are we humans entitled to assert "dominion" over the rest of creation?  Is personhood an "achievement"? How can a living soul split and reincarnate?

Most saliently, people in both classes were scratching their heads trying to understand why the old Greek & Roman Stoics insisted that "emotions are irrational judgments that make us frustrated and unhappy," and why both they and the Buddha counselled: "Minimize your desires and you will minimize your suffering."

I understand their consternation. The Vulcan way seems awfully cold. Can you really "live long and prosper" if you "form only limited attachments"? As Jonathan Haidt has written,
When life is unpredictable and dangerous (as it was for Stoic philosophers, living under capricious Roman emperors), it might be foolish to seek happiness by controlling one’s external world. But now it is not… to cut off all attachments, "to shun the pleasures of sensuality and triumph in an effort to escape the pains of  loss and defeat” is an overreaction.
Not many of us are likely ever to have to deal with a crazed homicidal Emperor, as Seneca did. But what if you found yourself at "Windows on the World" in the North Tower of the World Trade Center  on the glorious morning of 9/11/01? Might Stoicism help you decide how to dispose of your last free moment on Earth? 

Or what if you got a bad medical prognosis? This is something to premeditate, as did the Stoics.

In any case, detachment from conditions beyond one's control is only half the story for Stoical Vulcans. Their philosophy of IDIC urges "infinite diversity from infinite combinations."

Isn't that illogical, Captain? Maybe. But it's the way of our world at its best, so far as I can tell.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Brave thinking about truth"

Jennifer Hecht says "brave thinking about the truth" was the secret to happiness, for the old Greeks. They thought contemplation would "transform us and let us taste what there is to taste of transcendence."

“Transcendence” is a $4 word best approached in hyphenated stages-- trans-end-dance-- meaning simply, on Peter Ackroyd’s reading of the "Plato Papers," 
the ability to move beyond the end, otherwise called the dance of death. 
So the Greeks tried to think bravely about life and death, and to make the best of things in the interval. My favorites are Aristotle and Epicurus. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

To everything a season

Former New York Mayor Giuliani read from Ecclesiastes at the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan yesterday.
To everything there is a season, and
a time to every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and
a time to die;
a time to plant, and
a time to pluck up
that which is planted;

A time to kill, and
a time to heal...
As always, these wise words again offered some small measure of consolation (bordering on resignation). Mr. Giuliani attributed them to God. Jennifer Hecht points out that their author was in fact a Hellenized Jew of the 3d century BCE named Koheleth, who "doubted every aspect of religion."

But what else is new? As my colleague Rabbi Rami Shapiro says, not only is Judaism without belief in God possible, but he's seen it done. Himself.
The existence of “Judaism” only requires people willing to fill the meme “Judaism” with ideas that matter to them, demand that their ideas are somehow “Jewish,” and then spend their lives arguing in defense of them. This can even be done—and I am a prime example—when you know the entire enterprise is a literary creation fashioned and refashioned by thousands of Jews over millennia. 
A time to believe, a time to doubt, a time to think, a time to play...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Failure of Happiness

Sad tale in the Times magazine today.
He was studying philosophy because philosophers were the only people who could change the world... he wanted to know how people planned to find happiness... He was writing a book on the philosophical roots of happiness, wrote an essay on "flow." He wanted to teach the science and philosophy of happiness to audiences online.
And then, he took his own life. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Did Job silence God?

For the record, to clarify a point from Jack Miles' God: a biography that Jennifer Hecht repeats in Doubt: a history, their claim is that God's speech from the whirlwind is His last appearance in the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament, as Cody reminded us in H1, is another story. "And a voice from heaven said..." (Matthew 3:17) "And a voice came from heaven..." (Mark 1:11) Still, there's something decidedly transitory, insubstantial and second-hand  about those later scriptures, compared to the Deity's remarkable and extended appearance on stage in Job. Jack Miles:
A view common to nearly all commentators on the Book of Job is that, one way or another, the Lord has reduced Job to virtual silence. Unnoticed is the fact that from the end of the Book of Job to the end of the Tanakh, God never speaks again. His speech from the whirlwind is, in effect, his last will and testament.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A lighter look at the suffering of Job

More on Job and the p of e...

And some more links on this topic:

Job & Ecclesiastes (check out "Mr. Deity" on the time before time began, at this link)... More on Leibnizian theodicy...some slides, including Simon Blackburn's notorious dorm analogy... the Berenstain Bears face the Big Question (and almost face the p of e)... How nice is God, after all?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The problem of good

Jesus and Mo are right: there is a lot of good in the world, along with the pain and suffering highlighted by the philosophical problem of evil.

"Whatever." That's not usually regarded, in philosophy, as a conclusive refutation.

But at some point you have to stop arguing and consult your heart, on this question of how much human suffering is too much to lay at the feet of Divine Perfection.

Bertrand Russell's heart, head, and wit led him to this incredulous question:
Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?
What do you think?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Dr. Happiness's "Objective Happiness Quiz"

A diversion for your Labor Day... just don't let the quiz results ruin your happy holiday! "Don't take the results too seriously. This is meant to be a fun way of learning how you can become happier..."
Ed Diener, aka “Dr. Happiness” is a leading researcher in positive psychology who coined the expression “subjective well-being” or SWB as the aspect of happiness that can be empirically measured. He argues for a strong genetic component to happiness, and has amassed some compelling data showing that external conditions do little to change one’s happiness... 
Diener was noted in a recent NewYork Times opinion piece ("Happiness, Philosophy and Science") as a pioneer in the new science of happiness. Take his  quiz here. Accelerating Intelligence News