Delight Springs

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Democritus, Sophists, & more


An old post:
Today in CoPhi it's Democritus and the Sophists, and reports on The God Dialogues and Kant (we weren't supposed to get ahead of Descartes yet, so he's out of order - and he'd really hatethat.)

In A&P, we read testimonials from atheists coming out of the closet and will hear a debate on why people believe. In Bioethics, it's justice, life-extension, and the dream (or fantasy?) of a cure for aging. (Maybe that's one big reason why some people believe: they've found no other effective cure, not even a placebo, for aging and dying).

Democritus, the "laughing philosopher" (did we note that Heraclitus was the "weeping philosopher"?) doesn't really sound like such a barrel of laughs. He urged repentance, preferred a "well-ordered demeanor" and, Gottlieb tells us, was broadly contemptuous of human folly. Was he laughing with us or at us? But you could ask the same of Mark Twain, who damned us, and Kurt Vonnegut (impatient, as previously noted, with our species' penchant for unkindness). Is it misanthropic to deplore misanthropy? It's not unfunny.

Democritus may not been a side-splitter, and he may have been wrong about atoms being unsplittable, but his general outlook was astonishingly ahead of the game even if "he simply made it all up and luckily turned out to be right." He was a lucky guy indeed, living (legend has it) to an astonishing 109 and then "cheerfully" (according to Simon Critchley's Book of Dead Philosophers) pulling his own plug. Before that, if you can believe it, he extended his life by inhaling the aroma of fresh-baked bread. (If you can believe that, I'll give you a great deal on a bridge.)

Some early Christians opposed atomism on the grounds that its explanatory hypothesis displaced divine fiat and jettisoned a personal afterlife (with persons and souls dissolved and remixed). That's still the kicker behind lots of present-day science denialism, isn't it?

Leucippus first influenced Democritus with the atoms-and-void idea. Later it was taken up by Epicurus, then Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, "the way things are":
  • “All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.” 
  • O minds of mortals, blighted by your blindness! Amid what deep darkness and daunting dangers life’s little day is passed! To think that you should fail to see that nature importantly demands only that the body may be rid of pain, and that the mind, divorced from anxiety and fear, may enjoy a feeling of contentment!” 
  • Don't think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with... All such argument, all such interpretation is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use. Nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use.
  • “What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” 
  • “The atoms in it must be used over and over again; thus the death of one thing becomes necessary for the birth of another.”
  • The main obstacles to the goal of tranquillity of mind are our unnecessary fears and desires, and the only way to eliminate these is to study natural science. The most serious disturbances of all are fear of death, including fear of punishment after death, and fear of the gods. Scientific inquiry removes fear of death by showing that the mind and spirit are material and mortal, so that they cannot live on after we die: as Epicurus neatly and logically puts it: “Death…is nothing to us: when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist.
Atomism grew up "when chemists and physicists developed sophisticated ways to measure material phenomena," to lift them out of the murky realm of subjective and deniable opinion, and lower them down from the transcendent and resplendent but entirely invisible realm of eternal and indestructible objects.

And then we learned to blow them up. "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita. Growing up is not necessarily the same as maturing, for a species, an individual, or a saber-rattling commander-in-chief. We'll have done that when all our leaders learn to stop speaking flippantly about their "nuclear options" (and big buttons) that are nothing but MAD.

We mentioned Richard Dawkins' rainbow the other day, today we're invited to consider his related views on meaning and design (see Lucretius above). "Is there a meaning to life? What are we for?" We can summon answers without reverting to superstition, thanks to what we've learned about atoms and the void ever since we stopped embracing fantastic solutions to our existential puzzles and started charting the world's actual (not alternative) facts. 

The great legacy of Periclean Athens is the value they and we (some of us) place on the ability to speak and debate persuasively, civilly, and sometimes disinterestedly. The old Greek sophistes, Sophists, the likes of Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, et al, shared that value to a much greater extent than is commonly conceded. They taught grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, literary criticism, music, law, religion, human and social origins, math, and natural science. Big History, some now call such a broad portfolio of academic interest. 

Their undeserved bad name seems to have come from the reigning animus people had to those early teachers for presuming to seek remuneration. Fortunately we no longer expect our teachers to live hand-to-mouth, not entirely anyway. (MTSU faculty is behind the salary curve, btw, an important fact for faculty retention.) The fraction of Sophists who deserved their bad name, and the bad name of contemporary sophists, is earned not by their paychecks but by their failure to invest in truth for its own sake. They "could not care less about truth," peddled "ruses," sought to portray a mere "semblance of wisdom without the reality." There are someacademics and philosophers who fit that description, but you're more likely to encounter them in law and politics.

In addition, Plato resented the bad Sophists for getting Socrates in trouble. Really he resented Athens and its too-clever satirists (like Aristophanes) for not discerning the difference between a bad Sophist, denizen of the "logic factory," and a good Socrates.

Protagoras is the most interesting Sophist. What does "Man is the measure of all things" mean, if it means to embrace and applaud subjectivity? Does it have to mean an extreme personal relativism? Or cultural relativism? Or maybe something more innocuous like the view my old mentor Lachs calls "relationalism" - all things must be measured by standards and yardsticks actual humans can wield.  

"Protagoras apparently drowned in a shipwreck after he had been tried and banished (or in some stories condemned to death) for his agnostic religious views. He also wrote a treatise on wrestling." (Critchley)

In Fantasyland, we're reminded today of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's declaration: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  He didn't mean that it is magic, but that magic thinkers can't appreciate the difference between natural law and supernatural hocus pocus... and that too many of us are and will continue to be magic thinkers, until we finally grow up and accept childhood's end. “There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”

Homeopathy is magical thinking, in Andersen's book. And phrenology, and mesmerism, and Ben Carson's Seventh Day Adventism, and so-called Christian Science, and countless other varieties of pseudo-scientific snake-oil miracle-whipped charlatanry.

"Matter cannot suffer," said Mrs. Eddy. It quite evidently can, as it can do all the things we witness. That was William James's brilliant answer to those who would denigrate materialism as a philosophy incapable of accounting for the wonder of life. "To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life's purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities."

The California Gold Rush reoriented a lot of Americans' gaze back to the literal ground  of our real material world. Heaven can wait. But can we? We're like patient, diligent, long-term-planning ants some of the time, but then impatient, party-hardy grasshoppers the rest. Our "wilder, faster, and looser" side may not be in it for the long haul after all.

In A&P, James M. says Mormons are taught that the Holy Spirit communicates "an unmistakable feeling inside of you" and that an allegiance to the GOP is one of those feelings. He also reports a strong sense of maternal loyalty as holding him tight to the church, until he found refuge at Starbucks and the Boulevard (or their equivalent).

Shawn's parents were highly educated but not critically minded, retaining childhood's fear of paternal retribution. They might have benefited from Emerson's answer to parental clinginess: "You're trying to make another you. One's enough."

"Hyperactive agency detection" is a phrase I'll be borrowing from David, with whom I once shared a misplaced reluctance to raise the shade on my unbelief. I thought the Baptists at Belmont would be pleased, back in '99 or so, to know I wasn't a "none"... Silly me, to require the illusion that my would-be employers would be as ecumenically pluralistic as they claimed.
Some CoPhi questions: If everything is composed of atoms, does it follow that there is no life after death? Does atomism in fact "liberate [us] from superstition, fear of death, and the tyranny of priests"? If thought consists in the motion of mind-atoms, can we freely think our own thoughts? Or are we passive spectators of "our" minds? What difference does it make, if particles are inseparable from forces and fields and bundles of energy and thus cannot be proved to be "unsplittable" (as the ancient atomists said)? Is it "reasonable to suppose that every sort of world crop[s] up somewhere"?

Brian Greene (@bgreene)
The observable universe extends for about 92 billion light-years. No human has ventured farther from Earth than 1.29 light-seconds.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Milesians and more


An old post:
In CoPhi today we return to The Dream of Reason. What an apt title at this strange moment in our country's history, when the drowsy absence of commitment to reason, fact, and truth in the new administration feels increasingly and disorientingly somnambulistic. Gerald Ford's "long national nightmare" has a sequel. It's been said before...

It's very tempting, in these stress-inducing early days of the new fabulating denialist regime, to just nod off and request a wake-up call when it's safe and sane out there again. A leader really should read, and breathe fresh air at least once a day. ("Mr. Drumpf, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television... Mr. Drumpf can go for days without breathing in fresh outside air.") New studies show, Mr. President, that "when people get up and move, even a little, they tend to be happier..." 

But as Lord Russell said, that's a form of slumber to conjure monsters. We've got to keep our eyes open. Fight the power, for the planetSapere aude. Make the world safe again for the dreamers. And Dreamers.

It does in fact feel a bit like retreating into an ancient dreamscape, to take up the topic of preSocratic Milesians and Pythagoreans at a moment when every time we look up we discover the jarring rollback of another hard-won milestone of progress, on healthcare, the environment, gender equality, the 1st amendment, immigration...

But we must remind ourselves, those old first philosophers were modeling the very activity we must emulate now more than ever: throwing off convention, defying false authority, standing up to face the facts and seek the truth. They didn't know they were pre-anything, but went ahead and invented the best method of fact-finding and whistleblowing we've yet hit upon. They were our first, if not our best, naturalists (physici), and they were smarter than popularly believed. 

Thales may or may not have fallen in a well or monopolized the olive presses, but his claim about the ubiquity of H2O, "intimately connected with life" and flowing wherever life has managed to sustain and replicate itself, was not crazy at all. "In order to refute him we have to reason with him," as opposed I suppose to just stating the facts and telling the truth on him. (Or "giving him hell," as Harry Truman had it.) 

If Thales was a reductionist and precursor of Ockham and Thoreau ("simplify, simplify"), Anaximander "exemplified an additional and equally fundamental" scientific impulse, to peek behind the veil of appearances to discover the world's real generative machinery. He thought it was something determinative of all the oppositions we encounter in phenomena (hot-cold, wet-dry, red-blue) but itself indeterminate and without "observable qualities of its own." He called it apeiron (απειρων).

You can't mention him without also mentioning the other preSocratic "Anax"'s (unless you'd rather not be gratuitously confused) - Anaxagoras, whose matter/mind distinction has dogged us every since, and Anaximenes, who said the world comes from a vaporous mist. Onward through the fog.

What an odd duck was Pythagoras, with his numbers mysticism and belief in reincarnation and antipathy for beans and love for the inaudible celestial "music of the spheres." Study numbers, geometry, astronomy, and music, he instructed, and you'll grasp ultimate order in the cosmos.

Young Bertrand Russell had a Pythagorean and Platonic phase (as indeed did Plato), alleging our "highest good" in the mind's spectral "union with the universe." He later rethought that commitment, but in The Conquest of Happiness Old Russell still spoke of conjoining our respective destinies with the great "stream of life" (as I recently told congregants of the Sunday Assembly) that both antedates and succeeds our brief groundtime on Earth. Rising above petty day-to-day worries to contemplate eternity does in fact allow a bit of it to rub off on us, to lift us up. For a time.

Russell had another rethink, another "retreat from Pythagoras," ultimately giving up the hyper-rationalist "feeling that intellect is superior to sense." No. Intellect and sense have to collaborate, ideas, sensations, and perceptions have to come together and sound the alarm, to get us up and doing. Sleep then can be the restorative it's supposed to be, not an escape from responsible engagement with monsters and tweeters and oblivious fabulators who would trap us in their own terrible needs.

In Fantasyland today, Kurt Andersen says our "first great American heroine" Anne Hutchinson, early "feminist crusader," mansplaining target, etc., was also an early establisher of the subsequent  American Way: "so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality... she didn't recognize ambiguity or admit to self-doubt. Her perceptions and beliefs were true because they were hers and because she felt them so thoroughly to be true... [she] didn't have to study any book but the Bible to arrive at the truth. Because she felt it. She knew it." That certainly takes her down a peg. And us.

Freedom of thought in early America leaned in to supernaturalism and self-made-reality just as Europe's enlightenment - in the persons of Shakespeare, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and the like - was going in the opposite direction, towards the Age of Reason. Here it was "freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished."

And so we got witches in Salem. "In 1692 virtually no one in New England disbelieved in witches." That's the legacy of Protestantism, says Andersen, no less than its contributions to its eponymous "work ethic."

In A&P today we finish Julian Baggini's Very Short Introduction. Baggini makes the case for naturalism and optimal rationality, wherein we "don't have to plug any gaps with speculation, opinion, or any other ungrounded beliefs." He notes that while "avowed" atheism may have a more recent lineage, its precursors include the ancient pre-Socratic Milesians mentioned above. "Anaxagoras is the earliest historical figure to have been indicted for atheism" (Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History... & see Tim Whitmarsh's Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World - "Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills")

Against the canard that Hitler, Stalin, and other monstrous modern autocrats have all been atheists, Baggini observes that none of them was "straightforwardly atheist" while all have "sacralized" themselves to quasi-religious status - and "sacralization is utterly foreign to mainstream rational atheism." Is militancy per se foreign to it as well?

"Most religious believers justify their faith by an inner conviction," and many of them will probably insist that that's also how non-believers justify their faithlessness. We should talk about that. Do inner convictions ever suffice to justify anything at all? Isn't subjectivity or temperament an inevitable factor in philosophy (as James said), even though western philosophy's official view is that it should not be? Or is inner conviction just a mirror of external, local contingencies of birth that we're not obliged to honor, defer to, or even respect?
"Avoid dogmatism." Hard to argue with that, but maybe it's also harder to follow than we want to admit. Foot-stamping and cursing aside, how many freethinkers will readily admit there might be something to theism after all? I'll admit there's this in it, for some: peace of mind. But peace of mind shouldn't be bought with false currency.

Humanists don't all agree on what a humanist is, but I agree with Baggini's broad definition: "Humanists are simply atheists who believe in living purposeful and moral lives."

Here's what I should have said to my friend Brian over beers at the Boulevard the other day: "In the case of ghosts, we not only lack a rational explanation of how ghosts can exist, we also lack any rational reasons to suppose that they do." 

And here's one of Baggini's parting statements: "Atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us... [this is] the precondition for meaningful adult lives." That will strike plenty of theists as unfair. How does it strike us, A&P? It strikes me as a sharply-stated but not incorrect echo of Carl Sagan's milder, but no less protentous, Pale Blue Dot proclamation of "no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

So in other words: grow up, humanity. Childhood's end beckons. Unlike Sir Arthur C. Clarke, I'm not worried about that marking the end of our happiness as well. (“They would never know how lucky they had been. For a lifetime, mankind had achieved as much happiness as any race can ever know. It had been the Golden Age. But gold was also the color of sunset, of autumn...")

In Bioethics today we weigh the influence - directive and sometimes distortive - of various "perspectives" (feminist, cultural, traditional, religio-philosophic). There's no such thing as a view from nowhere, so we must make an honest accounting of how our respective points of view may predispose our conclusions.

The "Perspectives" chapter asks whether and how professional healthcare providers should negotiate or accommodate the various framework beliefs of patients. Or their parents. How should physicians treat and care for children whose parents object to medical intervention on religious grounds?

James again: we all have a philosophy that "determines the perspective in [our] several worlds... a more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos." It's our task today, and most every day, to notice those perspectives and talk about them. Lucky us.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

East and west and yin and yang

An old post:
So much to talk about in CoPhi today, spanning east to west. My hook this morning is the ever-elusive Tao, the way of natural harmony and balance and reconciliation of mutual opposition. It’s hard to talk about (“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao” etc.) but maybe that’s why we ought to try.
M 30/T 31 PW 18-39. Buddhism & JainismConfucius & Taoism, Early Greek philosophy (pre-Socratics), SocratesPlato. RECOMMENDED: JMH ch3 & p11-24
Two of the Tao’s better trans-cultural emissaries are Fritjof Capra and Benjamin Hoff, authors respectively of The Tao of Physics and The Tao of Pooh.
I’m a follower of Pooh from way back, he was Older Daughter’s favorite bear. (There have been a few, eh Boo-Boo?)
Capra, though, I’m really just finally beginning to explore, through the back door: David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics . Maybe it’s a load of quantum flapdoodle, as skeptic Michael Shermer & others say [review of What the #$*! Do We Know?], but it’s challenging (or at least provocative) flapdoodle.
Our tendency to divide the perceived world into individual and separate things  and to experience ourselves as isolated egos in this world,” Capra contended, had long been understood in Eastern traditions as a mere illusion which comes from our measuring and categorizing mentality. Western observers’ impressions of the physical world as pointillist and fundamentally cleaved off from human consciousness arose not from the nature of reality per se, but from the mental filters and habits we happened to have imposed…  three centuries after Newton and Descartes, quantum physicists had only just learned that “we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves”—a deep insight that Capra considered comparable to age-old Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist teachings.
JMH as usual has helpful things to say about all our topics today.  Consider her remarks on the Buddha’s conception of karma, for instance, and how questions like whether there’s a God or an afterlife or an immortal immaterial soul are unhelpful.
He said worrying about these things would be like a man pierced by an arrow asking questions about the family origins of the man that made the weapon… He said that to ask where the soul goes after death is like extinguishing a campfire and then asking whether the fire went east or west when it left. “The question is not put rightly.” Was there a God? Were there gods? The Buddha said these are questions “which do not edify.”
And here we can note an east-west meeting of the minds. Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates in particular were always more interested in the practical business of how to live well, than in speculative and metaphysical  questions about ultimate truth.
And this brings us to Socrates and Plato. The former “taught” the latter, who in turn taught Aristotle.  Each student disagreed with his mentor in big ways, without abandoning attention or respect. (Good role models for us all, we co-philosophers and listeners.)  But there’s a real question about whether Plato the metaphysician didn’t exaggerate Socrates’ interest in the hypothetical world of essences, Ideas, and Forms and understate his preoccupation with ethics. It’s the primarily-ethical bearing of Socrates’ inquiries, after all, that gets Solomon to label him a Sophist (and to intend by that a compliment).
Socrates was not opposed to the Sophists; he was the best of them…
Socrates believed that virtue is the most valuable of possessions, that the truth lies beyond the “shadows” of our everyday experience, and that it is the proper business of the philosopher to show us how little we really know. PW
Socrates “knew nothing and yet was wiser than most, since at least he knew that he knew nothing.” JMH continues:
Socrates counts among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth. The Socratic method is an eternal questioning. This is not relativism; there is truth to be found, but human beings may best approach it through doubt than conviction.
Plato’s allegory of the Cave, in Republic  Book VII, is a thinly-veiled homage to his teacher Socrates (whose “last days” he witnessed and was deeply affected by), though his own philosophy went considerably further than Socrates’ in asserting metaphysical knowledge of another world.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The monk and the philosopher in the Anthropocene

In CoPhi today, our attention turns to the dichotomy noted last time between eastern and western approaches to philosophy. That split is well exemplified by The Monk and the Philosopher, the monk being Matthieu Ricard ("the happiest man in the world"), the philosopher his father Jean-Francois Revel. If anyone is in a position to bridge the difference it must be Ricard, who walked away from a promising scientific career in molecular biology to go and study Buddhism with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In  Environmental Ethics, we wrap up our consideration of Erle Ellis's Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction.

Some worry that recognizing the Anthropocene might be to issue a blank "anything goes" check, while others - and I'm with them - think that failing to do so is to deny the reality of climate change. Others still think it all a distractive labeling debate, a re-arranging of deck chairs as the ship slowly (or not so slowly) sinks.

In any event, it seems undeniable that humans have become a force of nature, geophysical agents at whose hands society and nature have merged. Our story is Big History, and so far it's the story of wealthy nations (the USA, with China lately playing catch-up but still lagging far behind, per capita) and individuals emitting carbon pollutants at a rate wildly out of proportion with their numbers. Our story has largely been that of capitalism ascendant, remunerating short-term, self-interested thinking and in the process transforming the Earth by producing massive social inequalities.

So what we may really need, at this stage, is no single account but "many different Anthropocene narratives, to engage with the broadest range of human needs." Hence, the rationale for our course project of crowd-sourcing a variety of "cli-fi" narratives to furnish alternative visions of our future. "The visions we offer our children shape the future," said Carl Sagan. Our vision quest is no idle daydream, it's the preparation our survival demands.

Donna Haraway, inspired by sci-fi writer H.P. Lovecraft, has offered her imaginative vision of an alternative story, that of the Chthulucene. Her message: individuality is an illusion, all of life is connected, is "kin."

"The Anthropocene demands action,"beginning with an act of acknowledgement that we face serious challenges of our own design, that will require some serious noospheric thought to overcome.

Are we the Promethean technology masters who must and will save ourselves, or are we hubristic Icarus, about to get singed by our own overconfidence? Too soon to say, but "the prospect of a better planetary future" is not beyond the pale. After all, we've banned DDT, protected endangered wildlife, created parks and preserves, invested in carbon-neutral energy systems, developed solar technology and electric cars, issued LEED certification... But past is prologue. We're now called to think large and long. Can we do it? Set the clock, for 10,000 years. There's no time like the Long Now.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Native & indigenous wisdom

Feels like autumn here today, class, wear your peripatetic apparel!

The subject in CoPhi is native and indigenous wisdom, which preceded Europeans on just about every other continent including North America. Here's an old post from 2011, when we viewed Environmental Ethics through that lens.
We begin today with Native American Wisdom, a collection of provocative quotations attributed to sundry indigenous sages. Here are a few of the questions and comments they’ve provoked in me. Tell me yours.

All things are connected,” of course– whether Seattle said so or not– but just how intimately? Is the universe “internally” and determinately wired, or are the relations between us and our world loose enough to sustain our ambition and initiative?

And, just how much bigger is Mother Earth than you and me? How much does she suffer our collective foolishness and our consumptive excess? How much can we actually perturb and derange long-term ecological interrelationships and regional or planetary biodiversity? Do we give her too little credit, and ourselves too much?

We all spend forever on this rock, Annie Dillard once wrote, mostly “tucked under.” So the question of how we regard our ancestors, tucked already, is at the same time a question of how we see ourselves spending eternity. For those inclined to take the long view, it is a sacred question: the earth is home, now and always, to wave upon wave of human aspiration and repose. It is incubator and sacred burial ground alike.

Native peoples famously revere the spirit of both the land and all the life upon it, and still they hold the humans to special account: “A man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.” Humans bring something new to the wild world. Human nature is larger than nature per se, in this respect, but is also inseparably a part of it. Human culture is “civilized” but it often needs the tonic of wildness. What does this complicated condition say about us? What special obligations, of an ethical nature, does it impose?

Philosophical naturalists are not necessarily natural lovers of Nature, but indigenous naturalists always are. They’re born conservationists. But, conservatives, with respect to technology and science and “progress”? Is there a form of change naturalists can or should believe in?

I always think of native peoples as tribally territorial, deeply imbued with a sense of place; but at least one of the native speakers we read today chooses to emphasize the concept of homeland as open and unbounded, not so much a particular place as an expansive and figurative landscape, a stage for uncircumscribed movement by free peoples across space and time. How different is that, I wonder, from the combustible freedom of mobility we celebrate in our own time? When people nowadays re-locate for work or whim, and cruise for personal amusement, are they free? Or just untethered?

“It does not require many words to speak the truth.” How many wordswill we need to address this? Too many, no doubt. But this is the most interesting question I’ve found so far, in my own reflections on native wisdom. A proclivity for more silent forethought might be the most important thing we can hope to learn. Guess we’ll have to talk ourselves into it. [wordstalked outReality (conceptual shotguns)]

“We do not want riches. We want peace and love.” Another big challenge to the heirs of western ideology: is our civilization’s commitment to the perpetual expansion of wealth compatible with the other, simpler, humbler virtues we say we honor?

On the question of education, it’s hard not to feel one’s cheeks redden when reading Canassatego’s polite repudiation of “the white man’s kind of education.” Thoreau issued the same indictment in Walden, of the practical disutility of so much that we call “higher education.” Why don’t we all study “cabin building” and, if not deerslaying, then at least gathering, planting, and harvesting?

“We shall soon pass, but the place where we now rest will last forever.” Or, as I usually prefer to put it: “the things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves…” We should be teaching our children that, too.

And what about a sense of humility before “the Great Mystery”? If anything, such an attitude would actually reinforce the vaunted presuppositionlessness of the scientific quest.

“A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation.” But we hate the silent pauses, don’t most of us, most of the time? That’s a correctable deficiency on our parts, isn’t it? From fear of being taken for slow half-wits we leap into the breach, too glib to be good. A council of elders would find our typical exchanges brash and impudent. They’d want nothing to do with our classrooms, our courtrooms, our interview exchanges. Don’t you sometimes feel the same way? Don’t you frequently find yourself wanting to push your interlocutors’ “mute” buttons, if only they had them?

I’ll give you a few moments to think about that. And I’ll shut up now, just for now. Your turn. Take your time.

up@dawn Jan 24, 2011... LISTEN
More old native wisdom posts...

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Solvitur ambulando

Today in CoPhi we consider (and practice?) the peripatetic way of life, the approach to philosophy and philosophizing legendarily credited to Aristotle's Lyceum apprentices and carried forward through the ages by the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Mill, Darwin, Russell, and so many more. Christopher Orlet guides our tour.

Solvitur ambulando was Diogenes the Cynic's supposed rebuttal to Zeno's Paradoxes of Motion. It's a clever and (say some possibly sexist celebrants) manly rhetorical riposte, but more impressively it's a solid practical demonstration that ideas simply have to travel, to get anywhere. Up again off your Thinking Rock, your comfy chair, your laurels and your conventions. Perambulate, people, at least down the hall and back if not out into the wide open spaces of our local lyceum. It's about to get wintry here again,* but that never stopped Socrates. Maybe some of us are more like Descartes, whose mind purportedly "only worked when he was warm."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, said “My mind only works with my legs.” (Also a good heat-and-light source.) I'm with him on that, so long as I still have legs to stand on. A mind really should be flexibly adaptable to circumstantial necessity.

Rousseau was not in fact known for his adaptability, being one of the more bumptious and difficult thinkers of all time. He was a little crazy, but his Reveries of the Solitary Walker registers some of the delights of the long-distance strider while striking a few good aphorisms along the way. “I have never thought, for my part, that man's freedom consists in his being able to do whatever he wills, but that he should not, by any human power, be forced to do what is against his will.”

And, “Truth is an homage that the good man pays to his own dignity.”

And, “In all the ills that befall us, we are more concerned by the intention than the result. A tile that falls off a roof may injure us more seriously, but it will not wound us so deeply as a stone thrown deliberately by a malevolent hand. The blow may miss, but the intention always strikes home.”

And ponder this passage, in which J-J describes the temporary suspension of ego that a good walk can engender.

“Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me. I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.”

The New England transcendentalists went in big for the "gymnastics for the mind" too. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” wrote Thoreau, “unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from worldly engagements.” Henry walked to work every day. Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try (and don't live 42 miles away from campus).

"Charles Darwin planted a 1.5 acre strip of land with hazel, birch, privet, and dogwood, and ordered a wide gravel path built around the edge. Called Sand-walk, this became Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ where he roamed every morning and afternoon with his white fox-terrier." He loved dogs as much as he loved walking and thinking. Like us, Darwin's dogs are still evolving.

"Of Bertrand Russell, long-time friend Miles Malleson has written: 'Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.'" That really works, sometimes. But it doesn't work for "the average citizen [who] walks a measly 350 yards a day... it is not surprising that half the population is diagnosed as obese or overweight."

Several cities around the globe have a designated "Philosophers' Walk," and we peripatetics are doing our best to inaugurate informal ones everywhere we go. Did you see all those philosophers marching out there Saturday, all around the world?

Today in Fantasyland Kurt Andersen recalls Sir Walter Raleigh's gold-digging dream (a base to the first student who knows who called him a "stupid git," before promising to "give you everything I've got for a little peace of mind"), and regrets the early colonial pseudoempiricism he thinks helped pave the way for our present predicament. He cites historian Daniel Boorstin's contention that American civilization has favored those who are inordinately credulous and receptive to advertizing, and Sir Francis Bacon's prescient point about what we now call confirmation bias. "My side right or wrong" is a charirtable rendering of that attitude these days, when bias rarely acknowledges its own fallibility. Now, typically, it's just: "My side - !" Or, "I believe, therefore I'm right."

The School of Life, btw, is out with a new video saying bias isn't always a bad thing. But maybe they just want to believe that. "Loathing of bias is the flipside of faith in facts." Faith in? Or fidelity to? Semper fi, reality-based community.

Andersen says our founding mythology underrates the "run-of-the-mill" puritans who were in it for the money and not so much the theology, the first nonnative new Americans who landed at Plymouth Rock rather than Jamestown. "The Puritans are conventionally considered more 'moderate' than the Pilgrims. This is like calling al-Qaeda more moderate than ISIS."

Finally, Andersen reminds us that our forebears were apocalyptic. They were sure the end was near, and said so right after proclaiming Ronald Reagan's "city on a hill." Let's hope they're not about to have their dream fulfilled. But, that Doomsday Clock is ticking.*

*Originally published 1.25.18

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


The Labor Day weekend is suddenly eclipsed by September. Summer's supposed to be over, though of course the calendar says we've still got more than a couple of weeks. Summer's a state of mind, I say. Carry your own weather with you, on the inside.

My Labor Day was unlaborious. (At least one student, though, was working on Labor Day and emailing me about the quiz. I broke custom and replied, with a wish that he hadn't squandered his entire holiday studying.) Your philosophy (and your happiness) may only partly be got from books, as Professor James told his audience, but

That said, I just came home from McKay's with over a dozen good books on evolution, the environment, and dogs for an old $14 credit buried in my wallet I'd forgotten about. Today, my happiness is partly got from books. (And from a hike at Burch Reserve, and a beer at Tailgate.)y 

In light of today's CoPhi topic, cosmic philosophy, it seems like a good time to recall last year's eclipse. One of our discussion questions today:
  • Did you see the solar eclipse last August? Did you view it alone, or in the company of others? How did it make you feel?

Originally published August 21, 2017:


It's eclipse day at last. Never has cosmic perspective been more needed or welcome.

"The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it's more than just what you know. It's also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe. And its attributes are clear:
The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it's not solely the province of the scientist. The cosmic perspective belongs to everyone.
The cosmic perspective is humble.
The cosmic perspective is spiritual—even redemptive—but not religious.
The cosmic perspective enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small.
The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we're told.
The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place.
The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote, but a precious mote and, for the moment, the only home we have.
The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them.
The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and sex.
The cosmic perspective reminds us that in space, where there is no air, a flag will not wave—an indication that perhaps flag waving and space exploration do not mix.
The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.
At least once a week, if not once a day, we might each ponder what cosmic truths lie undiscovered before us, perhaps awaiting the arrival of a clever thinker, an ingenious experiment, or an innovative space mission to reveal them. We might further ponder how those discoveries may one day transform life on Earth.

Absent such curiosity, we are no different from the provincial farmer who expresses no need to venture beyond the county line, because his forty acres meet all his needs. Yet if all our predecessors had felt that way, the farmer would instead be a cave dweller, chasing down his dinner with a stick and a rock.

During our brief stay on planet Earth, we owe ourselves and our descendants the opportunity to explore—in part because it's fun to do. But there's a far nobler reason. The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their low contracted prejudices. And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment—until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace the cosmic perspective." Neil deGrasse Tyson

And, the cosmic perspective dismisses all narrow parochialism. The Tennessee eclipse? Really?