Delight Springs

Friday, December 20, 2013

Vitality & Rapture, a post-coda for Happiness

My little coda for the Fall '13 rendition of Happiness (PHIL 3160, aka HAP 101) looks a little glib this morning, in light of Andrew Solomon's riveting new TED Talk last night..

Borrowing Anglo-American wit Bill Bryson's "three reasons never to be unhappy," I signed off with the light reminder (more soberly expressed by Professor Dawkins, and fictively by Richard Powers' "Miss Generosity") that we're lucky to have been born at all. We're not dead yet. Lunch is free.

I do believe that, and often feel it deeply and seriously.

But not always, not effortlessly. Not everyone can, without pain and struggle, without psychiatry and psycho-pharmacology. I'm not much given to depression, but my mother was. Some of my students are. I hope they can take steps to arrive where Solomon did, with vitality and rapture restored.

The question is not so much finding great meaning and deciding your depression has been very meaningful. It's of seeking that meaning and deciding, when it comes again, "This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it." I have learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, and how it can be more real than facts... The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality... each day I decide, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment's reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.
Or you could call it happiness.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A graphic evil genius

Spent some time yesterday reviewing a new philosophical graphic novel. The publisher sent me a chapter on Descartes, featuring a demonic green female "evil genius." Is that misogynistic? No more, I suppose, than Boethius's Lady Philosophy, "a woman of a countenance exceeding venerable," or Nietzsche's "supposing truth is a woman" (with whom we are "inexpert"). Less, in fact. But why was the demon in a bikini? Oh yeah, they want to sell some books.

Two years ago I did the Intro course on a graphic novel theme. Philosophy forBeginners was okay...

And Logicomix:An Epic Search for Truth was better.

Russell (whose relationships with women arguably had their sexist aspect) later and wisely got off the Royal Road, which was always a detour to dogmatism. The "conquest of happiness" is not accomplished via total certainty. But he had to travel that road for a while, to discover that lower-case truth.

Now, I have the delicious task of cashing in my reviewer's Honorarium: $300 worth of the publisher's books. That won't take long.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


I'm deep inside that dreaded heart of darkness we academics call Final Grading.

For the next four days, with the final grade report deadline looming, I'll predictably receive several annoying untimely interruptions in the form of student emails, asking about grades. I will ignore them, and grumble, and think dark thoughts. Or better, I'll just pull the plug and begin an overdue Internet/email holiday.

Next week I'll happily answer, when asked how I arrive at the grades I report: "Well, I add up the grades for the essays, quizzes, the midterm and final. I average them out. Then I consult my stomach." 

Meanwhile, I  shouldn't be thinking dark thoughts about grading, I should just be getting on with it and even trying to enjoy it. It's not really evil at all, it's just dark thinking that makes it seem to be.

So, to get my head in the right space, a self-motivational repost from the vault:

Grading the harvest, 11.1.12. Grading. I always dread it, because there will always be a percentage of essays written so sloppily or slap-dash as to be literally painful and embarrassing to read. But then, when I’m actually doing it, I rediscover the other and better– not necessarily greater– percentage of thoughtful,  careful, amusing, even inspiring essays that almost redeem the whole business. Just don’t rush me.

My problem with grading ultimately is not the time-consuming process of reading and commenting on essays. That, after all, is one of the best ways I get to learn, and learning is the great boon of teaching for us all.  My problem is with the false implication that assigning a grade is the most accurate form of student assessment and evaluation. I agree with Alfie Kohn:
The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing students’ behavior rather than from test scores or grades. It comes from watching to see whether they continue arguing animatedly about an issue raised in class after the class is over, whether they come home chattering about something they discovered in school, whether they read on their own time. Where interest is sparked, skills are usually acquired. Of course, interest is difficult to quantify, but the solution is not to return to more conventional measuring methods; it is to acknowledge the limits of measurement.

Anyway, back to it. Wendell Berry’s work poem this morning is on point.

Whatever is foreseen in joy

Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

No, of course it’s not that hard. Grading isn’t farming. But it’s true, as in farming a good day’s grading has its moments of stress and strain. But overall, it elevates a teacher’s sense of mission. Spiritualizes it, even. It’s our version of bringing in the sheaves.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood

Rests on our day, and finds it good.

So, back to the field. The crop’s got to come in. I'm resigned to it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Skimming gulls & counting words

Wednesday's freakishly warm weather has given way to true December. Time again to borrow the wisdom of gulls.

Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the cosmos. -William James
I've been enjoying TR's "darkest journey" in The River of Doubt, a reality-check reminder that there's menace lurking down at the mouth of the Amazon too. It's not all skimming gulls. But that's not the point here. Point is: take the damn weather with you.

Older Daughter's neither a Gull (yet) nor an Anaconda, but a procrastinating Lynx. Her late-night tweets, entertaining though they were, remind me why I hate word counts and will never tell students precisely how long their essays should be.
It's time for me to complain about the papers I'm writing through Twitter again. This first paper's gotta be 1200 words. Let's go.
WC:1159 I need 41 words. Can I just talk about how much writing this paper sucked for a bit and call it done?
 Remember that research paper rough draft? The final's due at noon. WC: 1659/2500
 WC: 1659 I've been messing with the page numbers and bibliography for the past 45 minutes...
 WC: 1816 It's a good thing I don't have an exam tomorrow. Happy Friday all... Paper's due in less than twelve hours.
WC: 1921 Roommate's trying to go to sleep, but I'm just gonna sit here and type by the light of my desk lamp.  
WC: 2027 I'm thinking that I should have asked for a venti coffee rather than a grande. My eyelids are drooping. 11 hours til due. 
WC: 2152 I ain't about this late night life. (It's 1:30) My bed is calling my name. I'm coming bed, just let me put on my pjs. 
The other point is: stop procrastinating. But get some sleep first, hyper-caffeinated word-counted over-nighters are no fun to grade.

Yes, it's grading time again. Not a moment too soon for that old-time gospel of cheer. Just don't tell me how many more papers and posts and exams I've got to get through, I'm not doing it by the numbers. And make mine a Venti.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Follow me

No matter how often I remind myself to heed the philosopher J. Buffett's wisdom about taking the weather with you, December days like yesterday - balmy, sunny, intermittently gorgeous - get me every time. It didn't hurt that it was also the last day of classes and that my morning walk was splendid. I was awake to our parting message that, even in apocalyptic times, all the moments of life are worth living when we have goals to chase and happiness to pursue. "We are the lucky ones" really means something, on such days.

 And, a bonus: several students were actually listening this time when again I raised my sword and contradicted the writing on the wall, in our ROTC classroom (in the building named for Tennessee's favorite racist Civil War hero). They captured the moment. Two stand out:

Thanks James, Chelsea, everyone.

And just in case anyone's still confused about what I (speaking for my discipline) really meant to reiterate from Day #1 back in August, with that silly demonstration...

"You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody. You've got to think for yourselves. You're all different..."

That even goes for the guy who said he doesn't like to think about things and doesn't intend ever to philosophize again. Especially that guy. Like it or not, friend, you're different too. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Searle, Turing, Singer, Obama

Last day of class, before final exams next week. But, as I never tire of repeating, nothing has really concluded. The sun will come out tomorrow, figuratively at least. And it's going to be 72 here today. December's looking up, for the goal-oriented.

(Also worth repeating: "A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal," Nietzsche's "formula" of happiness. Not that it worked out all that well for him.)

So I'll march into my ROTC classroom in Forrest Hall (yes, named for the notorious Civil War general) once more with my Phillips Toy Mart sword, stand in front of that ridiculous sign, and reiterate Philosophy's message: you don't have to follow anybody.

But you could do worse than to follow the example of Peter Singer“the best known living moral philosopher” who urges us to "think through" what most take for granted, then alter our acts and assumptions accordingly.

Singer's on our final CoPhi bill (after John Searle and Alan Turing [PhilDic] at the end of Little History of Philosophy today. And, one last pitch from Carlin Romano, making the case for viewing Barack Obama as "philosopher and cosmopolitan in chief."

“How should we treat animals?” Respectfully, of course. But does that mean we can eat them or not? Singer says no. Michael Pollan, among others, says maybe. I say I wish they’d build a better Boca Burger. 

Alan Turing was a strange, heroic, and tragic figure who contributed more to preserving the world we had (by cracking the Nazis’ codes) and shaping the digitized world we live in now (by contributing to the creation of the computer). Turing’s Cathedral… The Enigma

Turing’s test for artificial intelligence is said by some to imply that if something functions intelligently, it is intelligent; and if its functionality resembles human personality in superficial ways, we may then speak of it as possessing human-grade intelligence.

And who knows? If you’re prepared to entertain that proposal, maybe you can also envision a mainframe host in your personal future. Maybe there will be a way to “map the billions of functional connections” of your brain onto a machine capable of replicating and preserving your intelligence and memories. Welcome to the brave new afterlife.

Seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s unclear that one’s hopes and dreams and delights– the stuff of embodied personhood– can be replicated in any meaningful sense. Never mind whether they should be. Planet’s pretty crowded as it is, and maybe one time around the wheel is only our fair share.

And anyway, as John Searle says, tests like Turing’s may not be any more conclusive about real intelligence than his Chinese Room thought experiment.

Advances in AI don’t seem to have come as quickly as some have speculated they might. But it’s still fun to ponder the possibilities, as Richard Powers did in his wonderfully informed and entertaining Galatea 2.2.
What a moment we find ourselves in! Ray Kurzweil calls this the Age of Spiritual Machines. If you can just live long enough– until the year 2040 or so, last I heard– you can live forever. He means you, kids. And he’s popping enough vitamins to delude himself into thinking that maybe he means himself as well. Good luck. I’m not holding my breath. I confess, I used to have a Sleeper fantasy like Woody’s. But Ted Williams kinda ruined it for me. (Fresh Air 12.3.13)

The best form of immortality may be the same as it ever was: a legacy rippling across time, impacting lives far beyond one’s own. Alan Turing didn’t live long enough to get himself fully digitized, but the digital world he set in motion has already secured a legacy likely to outlive us all. It dwarfs the primitive world of reflexive sexual bigotry he had to suffer in his brief lifetime.

To those who have a hard time fathoming how machines might ever acquire self-awareness, intentionality, and thought, Turing asks you t o ask yourself: how did we?
Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s? If this were then subjected to an appropriate course of education one would obtain the adult brain. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”
The idea that an advanced artificial intelligence should be able to “pass” as humanlike is self-defeating, unethical and perhaps even dangerous"- Outing AI: Beyond the Turing Test nyt 

Singer’s challengePeter Singer challenges the way we live in the relatively prosperous western world (“western” here is less a geographic designation than a state of mind and material comfort) on many fronts, including how we eat, how much we luxuriate, how much we earmark for our own offspring, and how much we give away to strangers. He sets the bar of selfless generosity much higher than our culture of consumption rewards. But the rewards of consumption don’t begin to match those of humane compassion.

  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
  • “The Hebrew word for “charity” tzedakah, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”
  • “Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”
  • “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
  • “Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

So, the end is nigh. But since it's really not: carry on. Keep asking questions, create satisfaction, follow your bliss, and again: "your own track, kid, not what your guru tells you."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

More generosity

It's the last day of class in HAP 101 [and CoPhi-#H1: see Peter Singer], I do hope someone's bringing egg nog. If you are what you eat (see Feuerbach), then this month I'm largely yolk and albumen (and "enhancement"). But I'm aiming still for transcendence. In light of Thassa Amzwar's experience, we'd better hope biology is not destiny. Or self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The entire human race” a massive parallel computer?Douglas Adams should get at least a footnote for that.

Julian Barnes introduces Part Three: “Myth will become reality, however skeptical we might be.” I’m skeptical of that, but note the serendipitous propinquity to yesterday's CoPhi discussion of Joseph Campbell and his "power of myth." If myth presages meaning, and the myth of digital technology as our salvation is swamping all other meanings, in our time, then we'd better start paying closer attention.

It’s not just religious apocalyptics who think we’re in the “end times,” we’ve heard about the end of nature and the end of history. Now it’ll be the end of human nature, if the transhumanists have their way (says the Aussie nobelist in Generosity). Are reports of our death exaggerated?

Stone has writer’s block, but if he were writing a book it would apparently be about his creeping feeling of being no longer at home in the world, in our time. Would people buy that book, in their collective wisdom (which he considers “catastrophic”)?

Evolution has designed us to notice life in the bursting present, not so much gradual change over time. That could be our undoing, unless we can catch up culturally.

The “secret of Happiness” is probably not what media reports in our story say it is.  Or rather, fulfilling that condition doesn’t tell us how to do it. My hunch is that the secret has a lot to do with learning to live lightly in the present design space nature has foisted upon us. We don’t seem much inclined to do that.

Engineered happiness is one possible “design template for the future,” but finish this book before you decide to endorse it.

Thassa,we noted, channels Richard Dawkins: “we are the lucky ones,” he says.

And she says: "Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn." 
And: "No one should be anything but dead."

And: "Everything that is, is ours."

She’s right, from an elevated and enlightened point of view. But like the rest of us ordinary mortals she’ll also have a hard time holding onto those shining thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most expansive moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.

All writing is re-rewriting, Stone & Powers & Kurton keep saying. In the past that’s always slowed us down and made us think. But if we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up and change us faster than we can think about. That's the promise and peril of genomics. Stopping the world may not be an option, nor thinking before we change. 

As a pragmatist I feel somewhat dissed by Powers’ characterization of the ”witty pragmatism” of the positive psychologist who tells “Oona’s” audience– much like Oprah’s– about happiness. He might be right, though, to advise keeping your options open (“stay loose and keep revising the plan”). Is Powers right to predict that pop media culture will be the largest stage upon which our collective future is to be written? Another scary thought. 

But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too, and there's nothing new about that. Yesterday's pop is today's classic rock. We're an adaptive species, we're easily sold on the new and sentimentally forgetful of the old. What's new from the genomicists and synthetic biologists?
"So medicine keeps getting more complicated. I see the revenue potential there, down the line. But you can't run a business without products. What exactly are you selling?”
Is he telling us he's found the happiness gene? No. Yes. Maybe... maybe you could market it that way.

Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. Consider that, in connection with the Updike-Kelly dispute. I'm all for collaboration, within appropriate bounds, but I’m still in Updike’s (not Kurton’s or Kelly’s) corner.

More Dawkins-esque rhapsodizing about our evolutionary epic:
Six hundred generations ago, we were scratching on the walls of caves. Now we’re sequencing genomes… If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves.

That’s a bit harsh, but I’m inspired. I’m also partial to my old-fashioned founts of happiness. Can’t we have both?

Finally, in this oddly self-referential tale that ends in narrative dissolution, Powers asks “What kind of story would ever end with us?” You’ll have to answer that for yourself, but my answer is: the story we’re living at this very moment continues with us. Where it all ends is (for us) the great mystery.

The end of "Generosity" (the novel) is good, if inconclusive and unconventional, because we're all still writing the next chapter. "...[W]hat we will be is ever beyond us." So the story continues. Meanwhile, like our narrator I can still say (at least on a good day) : "I have no choice, delight pours out of me." Hope you all can, too. The Atlas has not yet gone dark. Happiness is still among our possibilities.

So my parting words, for now: be generous, give all to the present, dream of happy futures.

Cue the symphony.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Foot, Thomson, Rawls, Moyers, Campbell

It’s Thought Experiment day in CoPhi (TX-Phi?) with Philippa Foot’s infamous runaway trolleyJudith Thomson‘s unwanted violinist (always a hot topic in Bioethics), and John Rawls‘ Veil of Ignorance in LH (& Jonathan Wolff on Rawls in PB); and in AtP, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. [And for #H1 on Tuesday, a peek forward at Peter Singer.]

And here's a PB bonus on the Trolley Problem... more trolley problems... plus, Sarah Bakewell's recent Times "trolley-ology" review.... (What would Montaigne say about the Fat Man? Maybe “I just don’t do trolleys.” )

For those who do trolleys, two scenarios seem to pull in different directions: either pull  a switch to divert the runaway trolley, or push a person fatally into its path. Same result, different intuitions about our moral culpability.
In numerical terms, the two situations are identical. A strict utilitarian, concerned only with the greatest happiness of the greatest number, would see no difference: In each case, one person dies to save five. Yet people seem to feel differently about the “Fat Man” case. The thought of seizing a random bystander, ignoring his screams, wrestling him to the railing and tumbling him over is too much. Surveys suggest that up to 90 percent of us would throw the lever in “Spur,” while a similar percentage think the Fat Man should not be thrown off the bridge. Yet, if asked, people find it hard to give logical reasons for this choice. Assaulting the Fat Man just feels wrong; our instincts cry out against it.
I find it hard to take trolleys seriously. But there is a point to thinking about cartoonishly-exaggerated ethical scenarios...
basic trolley scenariobridge situation

What is the point of thought experiments? (What is the point of armchairs?) To “trigger our awareness of conflicts between judgments that we previously held in combination” and “open up new conversations.” And give us a relaxed venue for mulling stressful situations, so we'll be prepared for the them if and when they come. Mostly thought experiments are just fun.

One result of trolley experiments is the valuable reminder that concrete choices, in even the most contrived, improbable situations, are messy and complicated. A normally-endowed and emotionally healthy human being will never find it easy to pull a switch that kills, no matter what she tells you. 
A cool utilitarian calculus has its place, and so do our subrational instinctive juices. If either were missing, we would make some truly terrible choices. Yet there is also still room for that quaint seated figure, thinking through the principles and working out a kind of pragmatic yet justifiable wisdom. An armchair is also a useful place for reading books [about thought experiments]. With all this help, then perhaps when the trolley comes rattling around the corner, and with a half-second to decide, you might just do the right thing. Whatever that may be. Bakewell

John Rawls’ veil. Rawls was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.

What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.

An amusing (if not especially animated) rendition of Rawls:

Last time we talked Rawls somebody suggested a sporting example: a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others  might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.

But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners.  There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.

Michael Sandel is a semi-Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument. He's also, as Wolff notes, "a communitarian who thinks Rawls is biased towards liberal individualistic conceptions of the good."

And he likes to think about trolleys too.

The late Robert Remini, biographer of Jackson and Claywas by my reckoning a Rawlsian in spirit. He bemoaned the lost art of political compromise. (“Clay,” btw, is a family namesake: my Dad was James Clay, his Dad was Clay, and back it went deep into the 19th century. A rooted source of my pragmatic attraction to anti-ideology, perhaps?) [Remini on NPR]

An important question: "who's doing the imagining in the Original Position?" A bunch of philosophers will presumably think and deliberate differently from a bunch of fascists, or monks. But if it's a polyglot mix drawn from a diverse society, and none of them knows their race, sex, earning power, or basic preferences, maybe they won't think exclusively like (narrow or partisan) philosophers, fascists, and monks. Maybe they'll think like pluralists and cosmopolitans. Maybe they won't be prepared to gamble with their liberty. Maybe they'll want to be just and fair, and be more inclined to take care of the least well-off. Maybe so. 

Carlin Romano fills out Rawls's position with the important, astonishing, neglected biographical Rawls back-story. It's useful and illuminating to know who he is, in assessing his theory of justice. He was a lucky child, recovering from diptheria and pneumonia, then a lucky soldier. His siblings and army brothers were not so lucky. He felt bad about his good luck, and angry about the theodicies offered to account for it. 
A Lutheran pastor... said that God aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs. I don't know why this made me so angry, but it certainly did. I upbraided the Pastor (who was a First Lieutenant) for saying what I assumed he knew perfectly well... were simple falsehoods about divine providence... Christian doctrine ought not to be used for that...
To interpret history as expressing God's will, God's will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice... I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil. 
Did Rawls "fail" to justify his theory of justice? Wolff doesn't think so. Nor, apparently, do the theatrical producers behind this:

Bill Moyers has been the most philosophically-curious face on television for a long time, producing programs and companion books like A World of Ideas, Healing and the Mind, and Language of Life. Just watched his late-'80s interview with Isaac Asimov, it's riveting. And Moyers' series with the late Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, was a surprise smash hit. It's all about discovery and creation of meaning. "To find your own way is to follow your bliss..."

Or, as we trolley philosophers say: "Your own track, kid, and not what your guru tells you."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cyber-philosophy, Feuerbach, & 17 things

Good report presentation yesterday from Anna in CoPhi on Carlin Romano's discussion of cyber-philosophy & -politics, and in HAP 101 from Solara ("15 Things Happy People Don't Do")  and Brenna on biology as destiny (or as Feuerbach said, "Der Mensch ist, was er ißt."
"Foodstuffs become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, the stuff of thought and attitudes. Human fare is the basis of human education and attitudes. If you want to improve the people give it, instead of homilies against sin, better food. Man is what he eats."
And thinks, and posts? Cyber-philosophers don't wait for peer review, and "don't expect to get it right the first time. You keep plugginaway." Iterate, and reiterate, and so on and so on. You can always go back and rewrite. Meanwhile, get your beta-version demo out there, kinks and all. Many heads are  better than one. In this way, cyber-philosophy is CoPhilosophy. 

Somewhere in Solara's litany I thought I'd heard mention of another habit of highly happy people: they make it a point to appreciate the aesthetic dimension of everyday experience, the delightful little moments most of us hurry past on our way to school and work. They stop and smell the roses, look at the sky, savor the stars and clouds.

I can't find that, precisely, in those fifteen items. So make it number #16: happy people do not ignore the ubiquitous daily delights of so-called "ordinary" experience.

And, #17: happy people don't forget to take a holiday and be grateful for it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Generosity, luck, & lunch

One of my favorite early moments in Richard Powers' GenerosityAn Enhancement  comes when the preternaturally, transcendentally happy young Algerian woman Thassadit Amzwar (whose name means "liver") disputes conservative icon Milton Friedman's famous declaration that "there's no free lunch." He was talking market-based economics, her purview is wider:
"My father was an engineer. He always liked the English expression: There's no free lunch. That's crazy! There is only free lunch. We should all be nothing but clouds of frozen dust. This is what science says. All lunch is free. My father was a scientist, but he never understood this one simple scientific fact, poor man."
In the existential economics of personal well-being, Thassa is saying, Richard Dawkins is right: we're lucky to be here. Existence, even the hardest of lives, is a gift. A bonus. And it's over in a flash. We should be happy. 

Thassa  "seems immune to anxiety. Her positive energy is amazing. She maintains a continuous state of flow." She seems happy, really happy. But can you be too happy? Is she sick or weird, hyperthymic or hypomanic? Can we get whatever she's got, in a pill or procedure? Should we want to?

We're reading Powers because it strikes yours truly as raising some of the most profoundly meaningful questions we face: questions about the very possibility of meaningful human experience as we move forward into our increasingly engineered, digitized, hive-minded, televised, entertained future, questions about our own authorship of the meanings of our lives, questions about fact and fiction and (sci-) fiction becoming fact. Will our successors even know what we meant by "happiness," let alone how to pursue it effectively?

May I suggest that anyone who's having trouble with the relative density of this novel might consider giving a tandem listen to the excellent audio version available at

I've been urging everyone to get started reading Generosity all semester, in anticipation of the time of reckoning to come near semester's end when presumably you'd not want to have postponed the whole thing. Well, here we are. Looking forward to seeing everyone's posted thoughts. 

For those who've not heeded the call, here (for what it's worth) is a small CHEAT SHEET and (ironically) Oprah's guide... my goodreads review... more reviews... "What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness?" Or will it?

Beyond its thematic relevance to our class, this is just a delightful, entertaining, at moments gripping yarn. The social critique of Oprah's America is right on target, the existential allusions and wordplay (a protagonist whose name means "liver," another with the Sisyphean name "Stone" etc.) are aptly amusing, the "creative nonfiction" angle on the meaning of our times and the personal and social risks implicit in large-scale genomic engineering... there's simply a lot here to appreciate.

But beware: if you don't like a self-conscious narrator who reminds you periodically that you ARE reading a story (because the larger story of our lives remains to be written, and we're all writing it) then you might not like Powers' insinuating voice. But it's not gratuitous, it's there to draw our attention to the audacity of creation and re-creation that modern genetic science may be about to spring on us.

“Real generosity towards the future consists in giving all to the present.” Kay Jamison isn’t quite so punchy as Camus, but says exuberance creates contagious joy. Don’t we all need more of that? But maybe we need less “first person” feeling fixation?

More questions for Richard Powers: Is Thomas Kurton trying to play Craig Venter ("playing God") in Generosity? With a dash of Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, and Charles Darwin’s “grandeur“? 

Powers throws a curve-ball when he tells us Thomas Kurton is not so “grandiose” (=egocentric?) as Craig Venter, but I think that’s mostly a legal disclaimer.

Kurton, the expert “gene signature reader,” is drunk on genetic possibility and the next big development issuing from our collective direction. Individual responsibility is becoming passe’, at least in this story.

The humanist in the story, Stone, is– like most who cross Thassa Amzwar”s path– content to bask in the glow of her genetically-cooked joie de vivre. But “he himself may never be happy for more than a few island moments.” It’s ok, her “spillover” is enough for him.  Should it be enough for you and me? I say no. But I’m not stepping up for genetic enhancement, either.

Are there other ways to increase your own “set-point” for happiness? Or maybe we just need to rethink our situation. Stoics, Buddhists, and others make themselves “happy” merely by reframing their self-image in the light of reason and reality. Thassa resists the clinical interpretation of her “optimal allele assortment,” insisting:
They make me sound like some kind of bio-factory forivresse [euphoria]. That’s just silly. Everyone can be as content as they like. It’s certainly not pre-destiny.

But try telling that to the people who buy and sell the happy pills.

Still, there’s a practical as well as philosophical difference between positive happiness and the suppression of negative feeling, isn’t there?

Is hypomania always a bad (though possibly seductive) thing? How about hyperthymia? Do we need to engineer them in or out of our genome?

What would you pay for “meaningful connection with another living thing”?

The quest for perfection and specifically perfect happiness, Powers seems to be saying, is more risk than we yet know how to manage.

Carry the book (or audio recording) with you over Thanksgiving, it just might be your salvation. It might give you something more interesting and constructive to talk about than the Dallas Cowboys or your cousin's reactionary/paranoid politics.
P.S. Thanks to our classmate Jon, aka the "Incoherent Rambler" & "Part-time Cynic," for inviting me to share his air yesterday. Happy to do it!