Delight Springs

Thursday, March 15, 2018


We conclude Gottlieb's Dream of Reason today  in CoPhi, with the Renaissance. Scholastic hairsplitting was down, classical antiquity was up, scientific reason was heating up, the Enlightenment was on deck. Rene Descartes waits in the wings with his cogito, ergo sum.

But, why cogito? Why not spiro (I breathe...)? Indeed, as Milan Kundera suggests, why not rideo? (I ache...) "'I think, therefore I am,' is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches." Descartes' reply, that his thinking is of the essence because it is indubitable, is dubious. But we'll get to that, let's not put Descartes before the horse.
The Renaissance was not a period of great achievement in philosophy, but it did certain things which were essential preliminaries to the greatness of the seventeenth century. In the first place, it broke down the rigid scholastic system, which had become an intellectual strait jacket. It revived the study of Plato, and thereby demanded at least so much independent thought as was required for choosing between him and Aristotle. In regard to both, it promoted a genuine and first-hand knowledge, free from the glosses of Neoplatonists and Arabic commentators. More important still, it encouraged the habit of regarding intellectual activity as a delightful social adventure, not a cloistered meditation aiming at the preservation of a predetermined orthodoxy... The attitude of Renaissance scholars to the Church is difficult to characterize simply. Some were avowed free-thinkers, though even these usually received extreme unction, making peace with the Church when they felt death approaching. Most of them were impressed by the wickedness of contemporary popes, but were nevertheless glad to be employed by them.  Russell
The new Renaissance humanist movement placed more stock in the quality and clarity of writing, than the logical contortions and convolutions of theological apologetics. It laid new emphasis on the philosophical subdisciplines of ethics and political philosophy, with the likes of Machiavelli and his "manly" prince, and Hobbes' nightmare state of nature, both offering bleak "realistic"/materialistic assessments of human nature. Most modern-day humanists have a much sunnier outlook.
IHEU Happy Human
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.” 
Some are even Brights, espousing a "naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural or mystical elements."

The Dutch humanist Erasmus "made scholasticism seem absurd and petty," or maybe he just made it reveal its pettiness and absurdity. (Did you see what Senator Franken said about absurdity, btw?) French comic parodist Rabelais knew absurdity when he saw it, too. 

Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate polymathic Renaissance Man, said scholars should study the world directly and not spin their wheels recycling old untested ideas and musty books. "Go direct to the works of nature." He really thought “the knowledge of all things is possible,” “the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding,” and "learning never exhausts the mind."  He bought Ockam's razor. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." He was a pre-pragmatist. “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” And, "people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Maybe that's where Dr. Seuss got "If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along and you'll start happening too."

The Florentine explorer Vespucci betrayed more than a bit of old world prejudice when he said the New Worlders were more Epicurean than Stoic, more hedonistic than dutiful.

Francis Bacon, often extolled as a "prophet of modern science," nonetheless wanted to "build on astrology, alchemy, and magic" because (as we're always told he said, but almost never told why) "knowledge is power." Neil Tyson's favorite scientist Newton was also, oddly, an occultist and alchemist. But by his time was that was no longer considered normal science, so he downplayed it. The science-magic continuum would continue to dissipate, even though Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Indistinguishable by scientific illiterates, he meant. Magical thinking is entertaining at Hogwart's, but the sooner we dispel the demon-haunted world of irrational fear and superstition the better.

Still, the continuum was in place long enough for Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all to be impressed by Platonism and sun-worship. "The sun can signify God himself to you," said Platonist Ficino. We are all star-stuff, and owe our lives to our nearest star. But it's a mark of scientific rationality to be struck and even moved by such relationships (see the Sagan quote from last time, about the intrinsic spirituality of science) without bowing down in worshipful submission.

What a "remarkable development" was Gutenberg's printing press, giving rise to "a deluge of books" and mass literacy. Too bad so many of us these days don't take advantage of it. As Mark Twain said, there's no practical difference between one who can't read and one who won't. Or, one who won't write or read more than 140 characters at a time. Looking at you, Mr. President. "There is not much thinking going on. He hears things that please him and repeats them, like a magpie making a nest."

Montaigne was an underrated Renaissance figure, father of the essay, moderate skeptic ("Que sais-je?"), and anti-Descartes. More on him soon. His cousin Sanchez first named what we call "scientific method" and said it could support only "limited claims about the appearances." Limited, but also correctable and growing.

Martin Luther's protestant reformation partook of just enough Renaissance spirit to refuse to accept papal and ecclesiastic infallibility. He was not without his own dogmatic streak, however. "A good Christian should look to the Scriptures, interpreted in the light of his conscience and his own religious experience, in order to find out what to believe." But shouldn't he also listen to others, and learn from their experience too? If “reason is the devil’s whore,” we're in big trouble. 

The French mathematician Gassendi "revamped Epicurus' picture of the universe" to make it more Bible-friendly, saying atoms swirl in the physical realm but their laws don't apply in the spiritual world. Christian atomism was convenient, at least. But is it tenable? Mustn't a scientific naturalist refrain from such speculation, and stick to his atoms?

Metaphors are important. Descartes proposed to support the new scientific worldview of Galileo with a building construction metaphor, that of firm foundations. Raze the edifice of belief to the ground, build it up again with bricks of indubitable certainty. But can we get enough of those to make the metaphor stand?

Some questions: Is there a sharp difference between writing well and thinking logically? Why do you think so many scholastic/medieval philosophers were poor writers? How can you become a better writer and clearer thinker? Was Machiavelli right, about how power works in the real world? If European explorers like Vespucci understood that European knowledge was at best incomplete, at worst just wrong, why were so many of them still so confident that the natives they encountered in the New World were sub-human? Why in general are humans still so quick to denigrate those who are different, or who have different customs?
Is there any proper place for astrology and magic in the modern world? It's been estimated that the average social media user could read 200 books in the time they spend online. What would they gain? What would they lose? What's the right balance? Do you trust your own conscience and experience more than that of religious leaders like the Pope? Does knowledge need foundations? Can you agree with Machiavelli about leadership without being a sexist or an autocrat? Are people fundamentally selfish, in your experience? Are you? Can people change?
Peripatetic news update. 10K steps may not be enough for optimal health. “It takes effort, but we can accumulate 15,000 steps a day by walking briskly for two hours at about a four-mile-per-hour pace... This can be done in bits, perhaps with a 30-minute walk before work, another at lunch, and multiple 10-minute bouts throughout the day. Our metabolism is not well-suited to sitting down all the time.”
10.25.17. It's the birthday of the artist Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, Spain (1881), who was living in a bohemian community in Barcelona painting portraits of his friends and acquaintances when one of his paintings was selected for inclusion in the upcoming world's fair in Paris. He was just 18... By the middle of the 20th century, he was generally considered the greatest living artist in the world. Pablo Picasso, who said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

It's the birthday of comedienne Minnie Pearl (books by this author), born Sarah Ophelia Colley (1912) in Centerville, Tennessee, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do lumberjack. She majored in theater, taught dance lessons, and joined a theatrical troupe which went all over the south. While on tour she met a woman from the Alabama mountains whose manner of talking amused her. The young comedienne Sarah Colley imitated the mannerisms and mode of speech of the Alabama mountain woman in an act where she called herself "Cousin Minnie Pearl", which first appeared in 1939. Nashville radio executives saw the act and were impressed and in 1940 offered her the chance to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. It was a huge hit, and she'd continue with the Opry for more than 50 years. WA==
Orig.publ. 3.23.17. It was on this day in 2010 that President Barack Obama (books by this author) signed into law the Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping piece of federal legislation since Medicare was passed in 1965. Universal health care had long been a dream of the Democratic Party. The passage of the bill extended health care to almost 32 million Americans.

And today marks the first day in 1942 when the U.S. government began moving Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes to internment camps. Between 110,000 and 120,000 people were forcibly relocated. Some Japanese-American men were drafted into the War even as their families remained incarcerated. The camps remained open until 1945. WA

5:30/6:47, 40/71, 6:59

Big questions

Stephen Hawking has died. "The only subject he found exciting was cosmology because, he said, it dealt with 'the big question: Where did the universe come from?'”

In late antiquity and the middle ages the big questions tended to be more about life's rumored sequel and how to achieve it. Hawking's view was that there would be no sequel, nor was there any need to appeal to anything outside the universe, like God, to explain how it began. "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Augustine first thought you had to make alliance with the forces of good, in their death struggle with the forces of darkness. He was on the right track, I tend to think, before his big conversion. He was right to suppose that our side needs all good hands on deck, to resist and overcome evil. He put that conversion off as long as he could, praying for purity but only in due course. For the record, though: I don't think he was right to think of our carnal condition as an entombment. Incorporeal souls sow no wild oats, ascetics enjoy few existential delights.

So, buoyed by Platonism, he "put all forms of materialism firmly behind him" and "turned back the clock of intellectual history." The old Greek commitment to reason was not finally comforting enough to him. "He returned to a version of the comforting supernatural stories which most of the first philosophers sought to dispense with, or at least to rationalize."

Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy dialogue found its own form of comfort, not in Augustine's Christianity but in Lady Philosophy's timeless stoicism. God (or Good?) sees all in a single atemporal sweep, "at a go," and thus somehow leaves the hapless victim of tortured persecution and execution as free as it found him. He can still choose to be "philosophical" about every misfortune, even to his dying breath on the rack. His freedom's a lot like Kris Kristofferson's and Janis Joplin's, "just another word for nothing left to lose."

Anselm's God, "than which nothing greater can be conceived," and his famous "proof" thereof, is another of those notorious sleights of hand made to do heavy philosophical lifting with nothing more muscular than verbiage. It's still shocking to me, how many bright people (including young Russell, briefly) it's seduced.

Speaking of great misfortune, poor Abelard's is painful to ponder. Gottlieb blames "his scholarly prowess and his passionate involvement with logic" for emboldening him to undertake his own fateful seduction. How ironic, that he would go on to make his mark as "the first serious moral philosopher of medieval times" and "to apply rational analysis to the nature of moral goodness." Too little, too late.

Moses Maimonides did not address Abelard's peculiar form of perplexity but did try to bring philosophy, science, and religion together. “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” But try telling that to the world. He was right, though. “You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” But, “Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”

He was onto confirmation bias early. “We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it. [...] The same is the case with those opinions of man to which he has been accustomed from his youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views.”

Was he really the first to say this?: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Did he anticipate James's Will to Believe notion that "our errors are not such awfully solemn things"? “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

He was sort of a bioethicist before his time: “The physician should not treat the disease but the patient who is suffering from it.” And, “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.” Actually that might have helped Abelard, with a little timely saltpeter in his diet.

William of Ockham's famous "razor" said we should keep our theories simple, our ontology thin. "It is pointless to do with more what can be done with less." Remember Goober's beard?

Remember Buridan's Ass? Apparently "no such animal appears in his writings." Too bad, he's been such a workhorse for logicians.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic friar, but he also had a vivd scifi imagination. He said there must be other worlds and "countless suns" out there in the Void, "innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow." We've only confirmed that in the past twenty years or so. It (and other heresies) got him torched in 1600. Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson tell his story.

Finally today in CoPhi, Aquinas. His First Cause Argument, echoing Aristotle, said a never-ending series of causes and effects would lead to an unacceptable regress. The first term in any explanatory sequence, he thought, has to be self-evident. But is that itself self-evident? Russell says, of "the supposed impossibility of a series having no first term: Every mathematician knows that there is no such impossibility; the series of negative integers ending with minus one is an instance to the contrary. But here again no Catholic is likely to abandon belief in God even if he becomes convinced that Saint Thomas's arguments are bad; he will invent other arguments, or take refuge in revelation." It's not just Catholics. Remember confirmation bias?

More questions: Can the definition of a word prove anything about the world? Is theoretical simplicity always better, even if the universe is complex? Does the possibility of other worlds somehow diminish humanity? Which is more plausible, that God exists but is not more powerful than Satan, or that neither God nor Satan exists? Why? Are supernatural stories of faith, redemption, and salvation comforting to you than the power of reason and evidence? And what do you say to Carl Sagan?:
“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.”
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” [More good questions here... ]
Today in Fantasyland, we note the Big Bang that erupted after the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) adopted its founding document in 1962 - the explosion of magical thinking when "dystopian and utopian fantasies seemed plausible" and the Weather Underground went to work making real explosions, kidnapping heiresses, robbing banks and creating general mayhem in the name of revolution.

And then came the Sexual Revolution, with the Pill "available everywhere by 1965. "When sex became far less consequential, it could become less 'real' and more like exciting fiction." See Erica Jong and Philip Roth...

This is real: Did you see all the kids who walked out for 17 minutes yesterday, in honor of the 17 latest school-shooting victims? This caps (for now) a history beginning with the first gun rights absolutists who surfaced on both the left and the right in the '60s. By the late '70s "hysterics [had] managed to take over the NRA, replacing its motto 'Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation' with the second half of the Second Amendment."

Kurt Andersen realized fantasy would now rule pop culture, he says, when he saw Star Wars. "I remember walking out of the theater thinking the Force was the first faith with which I felt simpatico."

Today in A&P, we note that "nearly all freethinkers strongly supported both the expansion of women's rights and freedom of artistic expression" in the embryonic culture wars of the late 19th century, led by freethinkers like Twain (who said "go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company") and Whitman. Whitman said “Resist much, obey little.” And, “Happiness, not in another place but this place...not for another hour, but this hour.” And,
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
He said not to argue about God, but I read this on a t-shirt: “God is a mean-spirited, pugnacious bully bent on revenge against His children for failing to live up to his impossible standards.”

Speaking of Augustine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton deplored his idea that motherhood is a curse. How would he know?  In her Bible she also deplored the prayer by which some Jewish men thank the almighty for so engendering them, and suggested an alternative: "I thank thee, O Lord, that I was not born a jackass." But that one might fail the presupposition test.

Robert Ingersoll also offered recommendations for Bible study, advising censors applying the Comstock laws to take a close look at the "hundreds of grossly obscene passages not fit to be read by any decent man." Bet they did.

Freethinkers and leftists came together over separation of church and state and freedom of speech, a coalition still in evidence in organizations like the ACLU. Freethinkers consistently uphold the constitutional prohibition against any religious test for high office. Of course, that never stops voters from dismissing and reviling honorable candidates like Gayle Jordan, or from imagining that America can cut itself off from the world, turn away from progressive politics and earth-centered solutions to our problems, and still be "great" enough to achieve a heavenly reward.

Jacoby offers a fine account of the Scopes Trial, and of how William Jennings Bryan's witness stand concession that even he did not read the Bible literally made him appear pathetic.  He was on the stand because the Tennessee judge thought scientific expertise irrelevant to the evolutionary case. Have I mentioned lately that I have a personal connection to one of the disallowed scientific witnesses, Winterton Curtis (my first landlord, who used to pull $$ from my ears)?

Today in Bioethics, it's case studies in medical paternalism...

And if last time's discussion of lab-grown meat left anyone salivating, my research reveals three places in Nashville where you can find that "Impossible Burger" I found in Indy. Bon appetit.

Image result for impossible burger

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sk(c)eptics (and a Humanist)

Back from Spring Break and the American Philosophy conference in Indy, in a new car (a Corolla, same as the old car but without all the miles and dents and irrevocable damage). It's good to be behind the wheel, any wheel. But there's so much anonymous hostility and naked aggression out there.

Aggression was the theme of the panel I chaired and commented on, with presentations on microaggressions, aggression in football, and aggression in war. Personal highlight: getting on my stump with George Carlin to proclaim baseball, not football, the best alternative and "moral equivalent" to war.
Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.
Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park.The baseball park!
Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.
Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying...
And so it goes.

George was a comedic skeptic. He said “Don’t just teach your children to read…Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything. If someone says 'Do not think,' say 'I'll think about it.' If they tell you 'Do not question,' immediately ask 'Why?'"

Before departing the Circle City I fulfilled a longstanding ambition to visit the Kurt Vonnegut Library and Museum, in tribute to a great literary skeptic. I recommend it highly.

I don't recommend Mr. Vonnegut's workspace, so low to the ground, though it obviously worked for him. I do recommend his good words, including that wonderful welcome to earth in Mr. Rosewater, and his last speech (at Clowes Hall) just two weeks before he thanked us for out attention and was out of here.

Today in CoPhi it's skeptics. Or sceptics, if you prefer the British spelling. Or you can follow their lead and refuse to commit. "Don't commit, and you won't be disappointed."

I haven't generally found that to be a reliable guidepost in life, instead taking my cue from the lesson James's "first act of free will" (previously noted) seems to me to teach: don't just sit there, stand and select a destination. And get going. As my old pal the Carolina prof says, do something-even if it's wrong. And as James also said, "our errors surely are not such awfully solemn things." Lighten up.  Pick a path. Move. (My friend's colleague David Henderson gave a first-rate presentation at the conference, btw, on not reducing wilderness and the national park system to an American thing but seeing wilderness as a call to cosmopolitanism.)

But that's my therapy, it may not be yours. Some of us really do prefer sitting on a fence, avoiding firm opinions, keeping all accounts open. And there's no doubt, a healthy dose of skepticism is good for you. But how much is too much? 

My answer is implied by the bumper sticker message on my bulletin board: "even fatalists look both ways before crossing the street." If you stop looking, you're either too skeptical or not skeptical enough. Probably a lunatic, too. Or the ruler of the universe. "I say what it occurs to me to say when I think I hear people say things. More I cannot say."

Point is, we need beliefs to motivate action lest we sit and starve like Buridan's ass, or cross paths with a cart and get flattened. Prudence demands commitment. Commitment is no guarantee against error and disappointment, but indifference and non-commitment typically leave us stuck in the middle of the road or drop us off the cliff.

That wasn't Pyrrho's perspective, jay- and cliff-walker though he was. Fortunately for him, he seems always to have had friends steering him from the edge. His prescription - but is a skeptic allowed to prescribe? - was to free yourself from desires, don't care how things will turn out, persuade yourself that nothing ultimately matters, and you'll eventually shuck all worry. Or not. If we all were Pyrrho "there wouldn't be anyone left to protect the Pyrrhonic Sceptics from themselves." Prudence wins again.

Prudence and moderation. "The point of moderate philosophical scepticism is to get closer to the truth," or further at least from falsehood and bullshit. Easier said than done, in these alt-fact days of doublespeak. "All the great philosophers have been [moderate] sceptics," have sought truth and spurned lies, have deployed their baloney detectors and upheld the bar of objective evidence. Sincerity alone won't cut it.
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These anti-realist doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry... Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial-notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
So, be a skeptic. But to paraphrase David Hume and Jon Batiste, stay human. ("Be a philosopher, but amidst your philosophy be still a man.")

Read Skeptic magazine, which in a recent issue doubts the possibility of eternal youth and features the parodic perspective of Mr. Deity. Skeptic's editor Michael Shermer says “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” And, “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know.”

Pyrrho must not have been that crazy, to have lived to nearly ninety. "He did not act carelessly in the details of everyday life," said a defender, he just suspended judgment as to their ultimate import in the larger truths of things. Or maybe he just wanted to protect his batting average, so to speak. If you never swing, you'll never miss. But you'll still strike out if you take too many.

David Hume, again. He was a skeptic but he didn't let that interfere with living. He ventured opinions but couched them in philosophic humility. He knew we couldn't all be Pyrrho, for "all action would immediately cease" and "the necessities of nature" would "put an end to [our] miserable existence." Miserable? He must have been having a bad day. Generally he was of great cheer and humane disposition.

So let's not throw in the sponge on humanity just yet. What a strange expression, "throwing in the sponge"-it comes from the Roman Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who told a story about a painter who stopped trying so hard to paint the perfect representation of a horse's mouth and discovered that sometimes it's best to just let fly. Fling your sponge, let it land where it may. Okay, if you're just painting. If you're living a life, though, maybe just a bit less skepticism is prudent.

Is it possible to go through life questioning and doubting everything, committing always to nothing, and holding no firm opinions? Is it desirable or useful to try doing so? And do you know anyone who doesn't look both ways before crossing the street?
In Fantasyland today, Kurt Andersen's brush is a bit broad when he paints with it a picture of '60s academics who turned away from reason and rationalism as enthralled with the view that they were all raging relativists who saw no significant difference between truth and falsehood. Some were on the relativist spectrum, for sure, but - and this is a point to be made (for all the good it will do) to Pyrrhonists and other radical skeptics. If all is up for grabs, truth-wise, what's left to recommend your point of view?

Maybe an out-of-body perspective, UCLA psychologist Charles Tart might have responded. He got tenure after reporting that a young woman in his lab went for regular o-o-b nightflights to retrieve remote numbers. Can't believe that flew.

Tom (Electric Kool-aid) Wolfe said the Jesus People of the '60s were "young acid heads who had sworn off drugs... but still wanted the ecstatic spiritualism" and found in "Fundamentalist evangelical holy-rolling Christianity."

It was hardly "nonfiction," but Hal Lindsey's Late, Great Planet Earth was wildly successful with its even wilder Satanic/apocalyptic conspiracy-mongering. No wonder Billy Graham seemed relatively moderate compared to such stuff, and to his not-so-different compadres Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. If you want to earn a reuptation for reasonableness in America, just stake out a position slightly less hysterical in tone to that of your peers.

In A&P today we note Darwin's friend and seductee, Harvard botanist Asa Gray. He was the first important American scientist to advocate "a Christianized Darwinism" propelled by a divine first cause. He thought it "possible to teach evolutionary theory in entirely naturalistic terms without addressing the nonscientific issue," in this anticipating Stephen Jay Gould's late-20th century talk of "nonoverlapping magisteria."

Gould was often called to testify in court cases challenging the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools, a phenomenon that would have been unimaginable to the 19th century heirs of the Enlightenment-especially after the Scopes fiasco. The sense that Darwin had taken us down several pegs was not restricted to evangelicals and fundamentalists, however. "How insignificant we are, with our pigmy little world!" declaimed Mark Twain. But we're significant enough to note our own insignificance. Isn't that significant?

And isn't it significant that we're heirs to an Enlightenment tradition that's confident of our ability that, if we keep plugging, we'll eventually figure some things out about the ultimate origin of life, the universe, and everything?

Herbert Spencer's "Unknowable" was a catchall big enough to lure those Americans who wanted to "have their God and evolution too." Will we ever know enough to know if there is such a thing?

Civilization, for Darwin, is a game-changer that subordinates natural selection to environmental factors including, most prominently, civilized humans themselves. Darwin was no Social Darwinist.

My alma mater Vanderbilt fired a geologist named Winchell in 1878 for disputing literal readings of the Bible, with respect to the age of life on earth. The Methodists who founded Vandy have since modulated and modernized, but there's been no shortage of other southern zealots to grab the anti-evolutionary baton.

And you've always got to be on guard against university administrators anyway, whatever their denominational persuasion. Our new governing board at MTSU merits watching, they keep scheduling their meetings inconveniently out of town. Get tenure so you can show the Dean any finger you like, my earthly-elegant mentor Lachs said. But Deans haven't been our problem.

The Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll's "larger and nobler faith" was in "all that is, and is to be." That's very large indeed, and to my mind is far more appealing than the Dawkins-esque en masse repudiation of all "faith-heads" etc.

Why aren't people called "Philo" anymore? I'm Phil O., but that's not as cool as Philo T(V) Farnsworth or Philo D. Beckwith, with whom I share a few heroes: Ingersoll, Paine, Voltaire, Whitman...

Freethought lecturers packed auditoriums back in the day, without the carrot of ultimate salvation or the stick of hell. Ingersoll was one of them, in an age seemingly more tolerant than ours of unconventional thinking. Their appeal was like Mr. Vonnegut's, to a better "vision of how to think and live on this earth." Hi-ho. So it goes.

The intellectual turning point in Robert Ingersoll's life was his youthful encounter with The Bard of Avon. That was a guy with a vision, an attitude towards "our little life/rounded with a sleep," and indeed a philosophy-as Colin McGinn has written (before becoming an untouchable, before #MeToo, before resurfacing with his latest and, in light of the events that ended his teaching career, his most preposterously-themed book).

In Bioethics today, Oryx and Crake and lab-grown meat...
10.11.17. It's the birthday of the longest-serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (books by this author), born in New York City (1884) who said, "A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water." She began a secret courtship with her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt... She once said, "We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk."
And, "You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do."

It's the birthday of Mason Locke Weems (books by this author), born in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (1759). He was an Episcopalian clergyman and a traveling bookseller. He wrote extremely popular fictional tales about history and presented them as if they were fact... It was Weems who invented the famous story about George Washington cutting down his father's cherry tree with a hatchet, and then admitting that it was made-up.... Pope John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council on this date in 1962. It was the first time Roman Catholic religious leaders had met to settle doctrinal issues in nearly a century. In 1870, the pope had been declared infallible, so people didn't see the point of arguing about church doctrine: whatever the pope said was what the church would do and believe. But Pope John XXIII — who had assumed his duties only three months prior to calling for the council — believed that the church had become too insular for modern times. He often said it was time to "open the windows [of the church] and let in some fresh air." 

...One of the most revolutionary aspects of Vatican II — as the Second Vatican Council came to be known — was the change in the church's attitude toward other religions, and other Christian denominations. Previously, Catholics were forbidden from visiting any other houses of worship, and encouraged to look down on other religions. Now they could attend the weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals of their non-Catholic friends and neighbors. WA
3.2.17. Happy birthday Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), who said “If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along and you'll start happening too.” And “It's opener, out there, in the wide, open air.” And “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” And “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

Happy birthday too to Tom Wolfe, who admired the Stoics and asked "What is it you're looking for in this endless quest? Tranquillity. You think if only you can acquire enough worldly goods, enough recognition, enough eminence, you will be free, there'll be nothing more to worry about, and instead you become a bigger and bigger slave to how you think others are judging you.” And “One of the few freedoms that we have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to assent to what is true and to deny what is false. Nothing you can give me is worth surrendering that freedom for."

Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer SimulationFact Check: Drumpf’sFirst Address to Congress
5:30/6:17, 38/54/31, 5:41

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Dreams of Epicureans & Stoics

It's Gottlieb's Epicureans & Stoics today in CoPhi, a bit more refined and garrulous than Warburton's.*

In Fantasyland today we encounter the counter-culture, hippie-dom, and the New Age whose mother church was Esalen Institute, "where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time." Don Draper was there, for a dose of Gestalt therapy and the deceptively-benign "I do my thing and you do your thing" prayer. The deception consists in concealing radical relativism behind a screen of tolerant-seeming pluralism that "helped accelerate the giant slalom toward a concoct-your-own-truth culture and society" that really didn't need the encouragement.

Nor did Jane Roberts, who made "Seth" (an "unseen entity") speak through her "channel" and say things like "you create your own reality"

Our culture's "sudden and enthusiastic embrace of psychotropics" helped make Seth seem a lot more plausible, for some, "fog(ging) up the boundaries betweeen reality and fantasy."

Kurt Andersen's mom was one of the inexplicably-countless potted devotees of The Secret Life of Plants. Reading generally makes people smarter, but dumb reading is another story.

In A&P today, Susan Jacoby's history of freethought in America echoes Kurt Andersen's observation that New England and the Deep South, before the 19th century, were reverse images of the societies they would become. "America's modern religion-based culture wars" invert the old order, when the north was actually less tolerant of dissent from religious orthodoxy than the south. Kinda hard to believe, until you remember those Salem witch trials.

But then came the war, and the south's "utilitarian justification for slavery"-this was not J.S. Mill's utilitarianism, nor his liberty.

Women's rights movements, to their honorable credit, have stood historically against such self-serving orthodoxy and servitude in all its forms, including that which descended from "Paul's dictum" of female subjugation. They've stood with the core values of Enlightenment.

"Truth is older than any parchment," said abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose heroes were "Paine, Voltaire, and the authority-challenging Jesus." They affirmed his conviction that we should read every text critically and in the full light of human experience and observation. The Grimke sisters of South Carolina spoke truth to every audience, including mixed audiences of men and women, blacks and whites. Shocking!

"Truth for authority, not authority for truth" - well said, Lucretia Mott.

Abe Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, in its earliest drafts, did not place this nation "under God." Whether he believed or not is uncertain, but his great legacy and importance is for "the ages" to which he belongs. What use have angels for martyrs to truth? Whatever he believed, he was a skeptic and doubter in the best sense. He was good, with or without god.
*Wonder what Epicureans and Stoics would say about last year's Oscar kerfuffle? The Epicureans would probably just say not to waste money on Hollywood, the Stoics that there's no point in grumbling about either Academy-Plato's or the motion picture industry's. Both would advise therapy for anyone who takes it all too seriously. "The key to wisdom is knowing what not to care about."

It's also another day for reports... Last semester we had a good one on Kurt Vonnegut's Man Without a Country, of particular interest to me as I prepare shortly to head to Vonnegut's Indianapolis for the American Philosophy conference.
“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”
[This paragraph does not apply to us directly, today, but it might still be of future use...] Would a Stoic care about an exam (let alone a quiz)?  We should, not too much OR too little-more than an "iota" but less than to lose any sleep over. James's advice on how to prepare for an exam is pretty sound, though of course it's predicated on the presumption that students have in fact been studying all 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"
Epicureanism was the ancestral precursor of utilitarianism and its "greatest happiness for the greatest number" approach to life. The big difference, though, is that you can't really maximize happiness in the style of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill while also shunning "any direct involvement in public life." Can you?

Epicurus was apparently the first to state the intractable problem of free will and determinism. If the random knocking-about of atoms gives rise to every event, where does that leave us? On the sidelines, observing but not directing our fate? "Here I stand, I can do no other"-? That won't do. Will it? 

A.J. Ayer said freedom's not worth much if it's decoupled from responsibility, and if there's no knowing what someone's ever going to do "we do not look upon him as a moral agent. We look upon him rather as a lunatic." That reminds me of an incident from my vault of undergrad memories, when one of my determined peers set out to demonstrate his and our freedom by doing something unpredictable with a beer mug. He really just demonstrated the truth of Ayer's observation.

I'm also reminded of the time Ayer faced off with the heavyweight champion of the world. Freedom and responsibility are nothing, if not a threat to one's bodily health.

The Stoics were (painted) porch philosophers, and in the co-opted person of Epictetus were more at ease with an unswerving determinism than I. "Wish for everything to happen as it does happen, and your life will be serene." Really? Is that a responsible form of serenity or resignation to slavish servitude?

The Stoics thought the Epicureans were wrong about plenty, but agreed with them that we live in a material world. Everything is physical, in its own way. Okay, but we're natural spirits in the material world. We're not just bouncing atoms, even if the occasional swerve leaves us guessing about the next configuration of people and things. Our breath is fiery and animated, and we have consequential choices and decisions to make.

But there's a yawning inconsistency at the heart of the Stoic worldview, Gottlieb says. "If  they are right about Fate, then nothing at all is under our control." Not even our attitudes and inner reactions to external events. Back to the drawing board. Or back to the therapist's couch.*

Can philosophers can be good therapists, or as good (in their different way) as psychologists? Can Plato beat prozac? People like Lou Marinoff (the "Socratic shrink") say so. Others say: dream on.

*Or, back on your feet: you can resolve with young James that your first act of free will shall be to believe in and act upon a committed belief in free will. Stand! You're free, at least in your mind, if you want to be.
10.9.17. On this day in 1941 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt approves an atomic program - beginning of the Manhattan project... in 2006 North Korea allegedly tests its first nuclear device... John Lennon was born on this day in 1940. Imagine.
2.28.17. Happy birthday to Irish-American novelist and lifelong learner Colum McCann, who at age 21 biked 12,000 miles through 40 states on his Schwinn, "collecting stories all along the way... He said that it feels like going to college every time he writes a book: 'I take a brand-new three-year crash course in that which I want to know.' And, 'real bravery comes with those who... look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small.'"

5:25/6:20, 56/70, 5:39

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Epicureans & Stoics

It's Epicurus and the Stoics today in CoPhi, and more reports...*

In Fantasyland today, it's the '50s. By the end of that decade the average American was watching TV for a third of their waking life-and remember, this was before cable. There were about three channels, but those post-midnight test patterns were mesmerizing. "Nowhere and never had people spent more time consuming fictions and advertizing," and not reading or patronizing the arts. We'e topped them for screentime, though, haven't we? Thanks, Steve Jobs.

 And continued thanks to Walt Disney for magically transforming Marceline, MO into Main Street USA.

Did Hugh Hefner deserve our thanks for his part in starting the sexual revolution? His "wankers" and "readers" were grateful, if not fully liberated from misogyny and stunted sexual/emotional development. [Hef U@d... obit]

And then there's the also-recently-departed Reverend Billy Graham, our "ad hoc national Pastor-in-Chief" who, like Hef, promised liberation and salvation. I wonder how many of his congregants returned from a Graham crusade and unwound (so to speak) with a centerfold. Sin and repentance will always need one another, as in a sense Graham and Hef needed one another.

In A&P today we turn to Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. A freethinker, by her accounting, is anyone who shares the Enlightenment commitment to displacing superstition and supernaturalism with reason and evidence adduced from the natural world. And a secularist is one who insists on distinguishing private faith from the conduct of public affairs. Freethinkers and secularists have been more central to our history than is commonly acknowledged. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, was censured by her fellow suffragists for excoriating Christianity in her Woman's Bible
The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man's bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire on the vital questions of the hour, she was commanded to ask her husband at home. Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up. gr
There was room for freethought in colonial America, says Jacoby, because its religious pluralism militated against a common cultural definition of heresy and sparked widespread interest in views like Deism. Evangelicals and rationalists alike supported separation of church and state.

When asked to explain the Constitution's omission of God, Alexander Hamilton deadpanned: we forgot. Or maybe "the framers [were] so godly that any mention of the Supreme Being in the Constitution would have been as superfluous as acknowledging the sky overhead." Or just maybe they were secularists... and poor Tom Paine was their scapegoat. Common sense suggests nothing less, just as it supports Jefferson's dictum: "it does no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." I've known Christians who agreed, though the more vocal of them continue (like Jefferson's hysterical critic John Mason) to sputter about "devils," "horror," etc. They placed Jefferson's name alongside the French corrupters Voltaire and Rousseau. Jefferson must have found that gratifying.

I've noted how it offended Southern Baptists in the administration Belmont University, years ago,  to learn that I'd attended a few Unitarian Universalist services. They evidently shared the Calvinist revulsion at the thought that nobody should be left behind, everybody should be saved. What kind of a god damns his own children? The kind a progressive, secular, young and hopeful democracy leaves out of its founding documents.
*Last semester when we took up the subject of Epicurus and the Stoics we heard a report on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. "Stuff your eyes with wonder," and don't "hide your ignorance... you'll never learn." Well, the un-bookish oafs currently running the show in Washington haven't concealed their ignorance, but will they ever learn? Will we ever learn to stop electing un-bookish oafs?

Epicurus and his friends retired from public life, having lost all patience with the unhappy society of their peers whose fear of death they diagnosed as a waste of time and a violation of logic. Better to live simply and bravely with your pals, they thought, pursuing (but not wallowing in) pleasure and avoiding the gratuitous mental pain of the material rat race. Like Aristotle they wanted to live well and flourish, with a bit more emphasis on fun and happiness. Also like Aristotle, they deeply valued friendship. Their commune inspired Marx's dissertation.

Contrary to scurrilous popular rumor they weren't lascivious hedonists or self-indulgent esthetes, preferring a plentiful pot of cheap stew to share over good conversation. Bread, cheese, and olives were staples - their version of pizza. The most valuable commodity of all, they thought, was the precious gift of time. As their admirer Henry Thoreau would eventually say, they considered  that"the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." In the long run we're all safely dead, he and they figured, so we'd better make the best of the time we have.

"Epicurean" is another of those adjectives that's drifted far from its progenitor's intent. Check out the latest issue of Epicure magazine, promoting the "gourmet lifestyle" and designed for globetrotting "bon vivants" and "well-travelled foodies." Epicurus and friends would rather have just hung out in the Garden and chatted over their modest but filling fare. "If you start drinking expensive wine, then you'll very soon end up wanting to drink even more expensive wine, and get caught in the trap of longing for things that you can't have" - not without abandoning your friends and slaving your time away to pay for your refined and expensive taste in vino. I'll stick with the Bay Bridge Sauvignon they sell at Kroger for $2.99, and the sale-priced IPA.

Be calm and carry on, as we say. "Calm is an internal quality that is the result of analysis: it comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to write, and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener: a sympathetic, kind, clever person who in Epicurus’s time would have been a philosopher, and whom we would now call a therapist."

True to his doctrine, Epicurus died painfully but without fear or complaint. He "suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. It was he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be happy on the rack."

And "in a final letter to Hermarchus, Epicurus writes, 'On the happiest, and the last, day of my life. I am suffering from diseases of the bladder and intestines, which are of the utmost possible severity.' But he goes on, amazingly, 'Yet all my sufferings are counterbalanced by the contentment of soul which I derive from remembering our reasonings and discoveries.'" Critchley

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an epicurean, in his day. "Death is not an event in life." Well, that sentiment's a bit self-centered but it's literally true, with respect to one's own demise. "I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind." But what of the pain of losing friends and loved ones? We must turn to the Stoics to deal with the loss of precious others, and may then find them coming up somewhat short of heart and soul.

Ataraxia, calm, tranquility, serenity, equanimity... that's the big stoic aim, based on the idea that we can't control external events but can control our inner attitudes and responses. Can we? Shouldn't we try, in any case? We should control our emotions, say stoics like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, lest they overwhelm us with the madness of violent feeling.

Marcus Aurelius asks, 'Why do you hunger for length of days?' The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. "Pass on your way then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go." 

Epictetus: "Men are disturbed not by things [pragmata], but by the opinions [dogmata] which they have of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But
the terror consists in our opinion of death, that it is terrible."
Cicero thought we shouldn't worry about dying, but not for Epicurus's reasons. Live now, Seneca said, life's long enough for those who make the right choices about how they spend the hours of their days. Annie Dillard and Maria Popova agree, "how we spend our days is how we spend our lives." But did Seneca make the right choice complying with crazy Nero, in his final hour? Not his finest, I'd say.

"The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance." They'd have been pleased to ponder all those game-changing "new" exoplanets, and (unlike some religions, says David Weintraub) to welcome ET. Winston Churchill too: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Some questions: Are you afraid of death, of dying, or of any other aspect of human mortality? Why or why not? What's the best way to counter such fear? Are you epicurean in any sense of the word? Have you experienced the death of someone close to you? How did you handle it? Do you believe in the possibility of a punitive and painful afterlife? Do you care about the lives of those who will survive you? Which do you consider more important? Why? Do you consider Epicurus's disbelief in immortal souls a solution to the problem of dying, or an evasion of it? Do you find the thought of ultimate mortality consoling or mortifying?

And one more: Can Epicureans and Stoics help us break our addiction to the spectacle of Drumpf " each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all." Can we afford the luxury of ignoring him? Can we sustain our sanity if we don't? What do you say, Emperor?

  • “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 
  • “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” 
  • “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” 
  • “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” 
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
The slave said something very similar. “Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it.” 

Don't you wish the emperor and the slave had been on the ballot in November?
10.4.17. On this day... 1957 USSR launches Sputnik I, 1st artificial Earth satellite... 2006 WikiLeaks is launched, created by internet activist Julian Assange.

And it's the birthday of Anne Rice (1941), who said “The vampire is an articulate character in our literature. In the last 30 years or so, the vampire has been an articulate, charming, beguiling complex person so he’s miles away from a zombie. The vampire is the poet and the writer of the monster world. The zombies are the exact opposite. They’re not sexy, they don’t listen to good music and they don’t wear good clothes.”

On writing, Anne Rice once said: “There are no rules. It’s amazing how willing people are to tell you that you aren’t a real writer unless you conform to their clich├ęs and their rules. My advice? Reject rules and critics out of hand. Define yourself. Do it your way. Make yourself the writer of your dreams.” WA
2.23.17. Happy 384th birthday to master diarist Sam Pepys, who expressed an epicurean attitude when he observed "how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” He was more the hedonist, though. “The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.” Gather ye rosebuds...

5:30/6:26, 55/76, 5:34

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Aristotle redux

Not to bury the lede, I must briefly preempt The Philosopher to report my good news: I'm here today. There was a searing moment during my commute Tuesday night when that seemed, for an instant, improbable.

On my way home from Murfreesboro to Nashville at around 9 pm I was involved in a 3-vehicle collision on I-24. One was a FedEx truck that slammed into my passenger side while swerving to avoid the other car. I spun completely around a couple of times before coming to a dead stop straddling two lanes in the middle of the interstate as traffic continued to whiz by in the inner and outer lanes, time enough to think "this is how it ends"... but I'm still here, I'm not quite sure how, but nobody was injured. The other car ended up alongside facing the other direction, full and with small children crying in terror. If the truck hadn't come to a stop just behind us, diverting oncoming traffic, I doubt I'd be here today.

So, I just want to register a profound sense of gratitude that we're all still here drawing breath, and urge you all to be careful out there. I've been running up and down that highway all these years, and maybe had become a bit complacent. It's useful to be reminded that we're always potentially a swerve away from our last commute.

The Corolla I've been pedaling for almost ten years is not looking good, but on the lighter side: Younger Daughter's very jealous of my rental, which (after seeing a photo) she describes as "beautiful and big and safe"-it's a Jeep Wrangler. My sister urges me to consider a truck or a Volvo, something sturdy. I'm honestly not convinced it would have made any difference last night, and I note that Volvo's going all electric soon. I've had my heart set on a Leaf or a Bolt. But I'm thinking about it.

The French philosopher Montaigne fell off his horse and nearly died one day, 500 years ago. But the next day he felt like he had a new lease on life. That's me, today and (I must not ever again forget) every day: lucky. "Don't worry about death," just get on with living... and loving life. 

And drive defensively.

Image result for montaigne don't worry about death

Now, more Aristotle today in CoPhi. The "research institute" and peripatetic academy he called the Lyceum was into everything from anatomy to zoology, so I'm sure he and his followers would have had said something to say about my Near Death Experience.

Wonder what he'd say about America's epidemic of gun violence, and the latest horrific atrocity. He'd be appalled, of course, by the violence itself and by the immediate swirl of fake news about it on social media. And he'd want to know what, at long last, how many children have to get shot before we finally try to do something about it.

Our Philosopher is the star, by the way, of a new musical tour de force based on his Poetics and Rhetoric, "addressing language’s power to influence others, for good or evil" and wondering “How can we persuade if the subject is complex and, as is so often the case, our listeners incapable of following a long chain of reasoning?” And, if they don't really value the truth as much as he does?

Aristotle, dubbed by Dante "master of those who know," loved Plato but he loved truth more. "All men by nature desire to know." I don't know about that. In our time we're seeing strong confirmation for the proposition that all desire to assert what they believe as if they knew it, or as if knowledge just meant firm conviction and not justified true belief. If we all had a natural instinct for truth we'd have a lot less talk about alt-facts. The reality-based community would feel a lot more secure and facts would change our minds. Summarizing the latest literature on confirmation ("myside") bias and irrationality Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding”... And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Drumpf Administration.
...Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science...
“The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring.
 Aristotle may have been naive about all this, but knowing that we're prone to "knowing" things that just ain't so should reassure us that real knowledge is still a reasonable aspiration worth fighting for.

"Aristotle was much too down to earth" to go in for eternal Forms or absolute Anythings. "The Cave was not so bad once you turned the lights on" - did Dumbledore say that? Look in all the dark corners, "for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful." 

Aristotle's latter-day critics point to his un-Darwinian emphasis on teleology in nature, but in fact he was "stumbling along the right track." Lions have sharp teeth because sharp teeth help lions survive and multiply, not because a cosmic design ruled out toothless lions.* It's important to distinguish "how come" questions from "what for" questions, as Professor Dennett said at the Googleplex, and to admit the possibility of design without a designer.

He's also concerned about our current rash of unreason, telling an interviewer "the real danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else can spread the rumour that you’re fake news. We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages." Ironic. The middle ages distorted and perverted Aristotle's respect for truth and facts. Is the postmodern age about to sin against his philosophy again?

Aristotle is generally very good at distinguishing different kinds of question, with respect to causes. They are material, formal, final, and efficient, respectively concerning what things are made of, how they're formed, what purposes they serve, and what precipitated and changed them). Change is a big reality for Aristotle, always involving somthing that changes in both its before- and after-modalities, revealing potentiality and actuality. "No logical mystery there."

God might be a mystery, though it mystifies some that Aristotle's God thinks so much about Himself. "The idea that there was a being who one morning conjured up the universe out of nothing and then busied himself handing out rewards and punishments to its measly inhabitants" did not mystify The Philosopher, it annoyed him.

The fundamental type of existence for Aristotle is not to be found in Plato's self-subsisting world of eternal Ideas or Forms, it's just ordinary things - trees, rocks, plants, animals. The former "puts the cart before the horse" and tempts me to trot out that bad old Descartes pun too soon. Instead I'll just put a few questions in the spirit of the great founding empiricist. Would you rather attend Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum? Have you ever sharply disagreed with a teacher whom you nonetheless deeply admired? Is art really a "cave within a cave", or a source of light and truth?

Speaking of "language's power to influence others"...

In Fantasyland today, we go to the movies. (Last night Older Daughter and I went to see "The Darkest Hour," wherein Winston Churchill deployed the English language and sent it successfully into battle.) Cinema narrows the gap between fantasy and reality, magically transporting us into other worlds. Good literature does that too, but there's something peculiarly magical about the silver screen. William James said it produces "hallucinations and illusions [as] vivid as realities." What would he say about VR? What would Aristotle? Plato, we know, would not approve of its un-reality. But sometimes nothing tells the truth like fiction.

And then there's the world of advertizing. It also spins fantasies, for a profit. Don Draper didn't really want to teach the world to sing, he wanted the world to sing his jingle and buy his client's product. But as fantasies go, it's pretty alluring. Ommm...

Orson Welles' Martians seem pretty benign, in retrospect, compared to Nazis then and now.

Celebrity culture may seem benign, but hasn't it really distracted us dangerously from the proper focus of democratic life?

In A&P, John thinks it's possible to talk about our opinions openly without getting into a big fight if we just keep it "personal, accurate, but not universal." He finds atheist humor "a good icebreaker." That's why I keep recommending Julia Sweeney. "Not believing in God is one thing... but an ATHEIST?!" That was her Mom, as I recall. And her Dad: "Don't come to my funeral." To which Julia wished she'd replied: "Just try and stop me!"

Are more than half of millennials disenchanted with religion? That sounds like a movement, if it finds someplace to take  that disenchantment.

Are theists and atheists "similarly skilled at finding meaning in life and self-actualization"? It depends on what you mean by "similarly"... and "skilled"... and "meaning"...

Ulla may be my favorite Atheists in America testifier. "I went to services a few times at a local Unitarian church... I look at pictures sent back by the Hubble space telescope [...&] find it  inconceivable that people believe that this force we are witnessing is God's creation." But she meets other opinions with an indulgent smile.

And, on this day after the passing of Rev. Graham: "I watched an interview with Billy Graham's daughter, who stated that you couldn't be wise unless you believe in God. In view of that, I'm doubly glad that her father's teachings had but a fleeting influence on me." Me too.

Betty cowered between hymns by her Presbyterian choir, convinced "they were the Lord's spies  checking on my behavior." He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake...

Like Ulla, Betty accepts others' prayers graciously.-more graciously, certainly, than Daniel Dennett when he asked his divine solicitors if they also intended to sacrifice a goat on his behalf. (In his defense, he was trying to "break the spell" of magical thinking over the prayer-based community.) But Betty also reads and thinks, and shows you can break your own spell without depriving others' of theirs. Live and let live, to the limits of mutual tolerance.

Margaret's Congregationalist-Universalist father believed in anyone gets to go the an afterlife, pretty much everyone should. Good for him.

I often reference Dr. House, in Bioethics. He's one of the few atheists portrayed in American pop culture, and he perpetrates a stereotype of atheists as bitter, misanthropic cynics. Even so, he usually saves his patients.

Margaret gets the last word in this book, which nicely punctuates my highway escapade. "I'm not afraid of death since I don't believe in an afterlife; I'm just not ready to go yet." That's it, exactly.

What do you think, Susan Jacoby?

And what do you think about euthanasia, Bioethics?
Happy birthday George Washington (1732), who lost his first political campaign for refusing to bribe the electorate with booze. (He won his second when his campaign manager did not refuse.)

And, happy birthday Dolly the Sheep (1997).

It's also the anniversary of the Olympic "miracle on ice" in Lake Placid (1980)-a hockey game. Really. It was nice to see the U.S. women's team take the Russians yesterday, but that wasn't a miracle either.
10.2.17. It's the birthday of Groucho Marx, Nat Turner, Wallace Stevens, and Mohandas Gandhi... who said, respectively: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members”.... “I should arise and … slay my enemies with their own weapons”... “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job”... “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” WA
2.21.17. Speaking of *lions... "Most of the ideas that went into The Communist Manifesto [published on this date in 1848] were brainstormed over the course of a week and a half in a room above an English pub — a pub called the Red Lion, located in the Soho district of London." And it's the birthday of the brilliant but troubled David Foster Wallace, who diagnosed part of our problem when he said “postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving." WA ("This Is Water")

5:30/6:28, 56/68, 5:32