Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy 2015

William James once resolved that his first act of free will would be to believe in, and act on, his own free will. That's a good way to start a new year. John Horgan thinks so too.
At this time of year, I like to hearten others making New Year’s resolutions by defending free will, which has been attacked by various scientific pundits (who are just misguided, not stupid or evil). After all, how can you believe in resolutions unless you believe in free will? his 2003 book Freedom Evolves, Dennett lays out a sensible, down to earth view of free will. He notes, first, that free will is “not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.” Free will is simply our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.
Dennett calls free will “an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs,” which humanity acquired recently as a consequence of language and culture. Free will is a variable rather than binary property, which can wax and wane in both individuals and societies; the more choices we can perceive and act upon, the more free will we have. Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an “objective phenomenon” and dependent on our belief in and perception of it, “like language, music, money and other products of society.” (continues

Thursday, December 25, 2014

My xmas list

Older Daughter, the film major, came up with an inspired Christmas present request this year: she asks each family member for their favorite movie, on DVD, along with an explanation. It's a challenging assignment. I've narrowed my candidate list to five (Groundhog Day just missed the cut):
5. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967). "Yes," wrote Roger Ebert, "there are serious faults... but they are overcome by the virtues of this delightfully old-fashioned film." I saw it when I was ten, at a matinee, with my mother. I think we both cried, tears of sadness and of joy. It opened my young eyes to the stupidity of racism, warned me of the hypocrisy of untested liberalism, and perhaps saddled me with the unsustainably romantic notion that love conquers all - "as long as there's the two of us" etc. etc. I love the hilarious scene at the ice-cream stand, though the cool kid's disrespectful "stupid old man"  now has an unwelcome resonance for me that it lacked back when I couldn't imagine ever possibly being one. Tracy and Hepburn are magnificent, and the theme's romantic message remains sound (or at least unshakable): "you've got to give a little, take a little, let your poor heart break a little... that's the glory of love."
4. Sophie's Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982). Great novel by William Styron, great early performance by Meryl Streep. Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie's life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.
The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"
And the answer: "Where was man?” 
3. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979). I don't know much about cinematography but I know what I like, and I really like the old-timey look of this picture, and the Gershwin soundtrack, and I love the List scene:
"Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face..."
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Arthur C. Clarke's story famously infuriated premier attendees including Rock Hudson ("Can anybody tell me what the hell this is about?!") and mystified me too, near the end. But this was the year before Neil Armstrong's "one small step," and I really thought there'd be Martians (from Earth) by now. This movie captured and amplified my generation's dreams of cosmic exploration. The recently-released Interstellar has been called this generation's 2001, but that's silly. Oh, the echoes are there alright. But in 1968 the idea of space as our beckoning "final frontier" had real credibility. Or so we thought. “Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning to grope toward a future.” More groping, please. Open the pod bay door, Hal.
1. Life of Brian (Monty Python, 1979). It's not the most profound picture ever, nor possibly the funniest, but I saw it in Columbia MO with some of my fellow philosophy major pals. We were the right audience. It taught us the importance of philosophizing with a proper portion of serious nonsense. We're all individuals, we're all different. Except for those who are not. Blessed are the cheesemakers (but don't take that literally, silly fundamentalists). Above all, "always look on the bright side." Darned good life wisdom, if you ask me.

If life seems jolly rotten

There's something you've forgotten

And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing

When you're feeling in the dumps
Don't be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle
- that's the thing.
And...always look on the bright
side of life...

According to The New Yorker, it is the most requested song at British funerals, edging out “My Way.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Richard Ford-"I'm here"

Heading out shortly to see Richard Ford at the Parnassus-co-sponsored event at the Nashville public library downtown. Here he was recently in Washington.

He just drove down from a similar event in St. Louis. Tomorrow night he'll be at Square Books in Oxford MS. Authors complain about author tours, but I'm excited about this one. I last saw Ford at the old Davis-Kidd in Nashville in June '96, when he inscribed a congratulatory response to my announcement that I'd heeded the wisdom of The Sportswriter: "In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five..."


UPDATE, 8:30 pm-

This grace note followed my admission that shortly after meeting him in '96 I'd gone and got myself right back into academia, where I've been ever since. Nice man.

Feels like closing a circuit. Or, as he says this new book is all about, "bearing witness." One of the attendees last night asked if Ford thought happiness is "relevant." Yes, but... there are satisfactions in a long and constructive life that exceed mere happiness. I think that's also what his books are about.

But beware this and every other explanation. "Explaining is where we all get into trouble." Don't I know it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Know Thy Self - Really

"Most people wonder at some point in their lives how well they know themselves. Self-knowledge seems a good thing to have, but hard to attain. To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense.
Not any more. With few exceptions, philosophers of self-knowledge nowadays have other concerns. Here’s an example of the sort of thing philosophers worry about: suppose you are wearing socks and believe you are wearing socks. How do you know that that’s what you believe? Notice that the question isn’t: “How do you know you are wearing socks?” but rather “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” Knowledge of such beliefs is seen as a form of self-knowledge. Other popular examples of self-knowledge in the philosophical literature include knowing that you are in pain and knowing that you are thinking that water is wet. For many philosophers the challenge is explain how these types of self-knowledge are possible..." Quassim Cassam in The Stone

Professor Cassam is right, too many epistemologists have effectively renounced the classic historical quarry of their discipline, self-knowledge. But it's false to insinuate that the majority of us, on the front lines of large public teaching institutions like mine, have stopped posing the Big Questions. Far from it. William James long ago skewered the "gray-plaster temperament of our bald-headed young PhDs, boring one another at conferences with their talk of Erkenntnistheorie" etc. etc. Most of my peers, and I, don't bother with those conferences. We know ourselves better than that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Good people

Author and bookseller Ann Patchett has a nice Almanac quote on her birthday, in reply to critics who call her Pollyanna:  "I think there are plenty of people dealing with the darker side of human nature, and if I am going to write about people who are kind and generous and loving and thoughtful, so what? In my life I have met astonishingly good people."  Good for her. The jerks get too much attention.

Ann's first published novel came after several rejections, a bad case of writer's block, and a stint waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday's in Nashville. "Everybody believed that they were special, that they weren't really a waiter, that they were the one who was getting out. ... I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just like everybody else, a girl with a dream and a plate of hot fajitas. You get out not so much because you're special but because you've got enough steel in your soul to crawl up."

Her biblio-perseverance reminds me of my reaction at the multiplex the other night, watching Matthew McConaughey in "Interstellar" trying literally to reach his daughter through the bookcase. I've been trying to do that my entire adult life. Nice metaphor. Great medium. Good people. Accelerating Intelligence News