Delight Springs

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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. Another great day for asking questions and making plans.

Also worth repeating, in light of the tiny captioned question ("Yes, but what are your goals?") : "A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal," Nietzsche's "formula" of happiness. Not that it worked out all that well for him. Robert gave us an excellent report on Nietzsche Monday in CoPhi, btw.

Philosophy's message is unchanged: you don't have to follow anybody. Sapere Aude, as Kant enjoined. Have the courage to use your rational capacity. Think.

You could do worse, if you really wanted to think for yourself, than 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. 

Yesterday in Bioethics Elijah gave us a different question regarding the ethical treatment of animals: are you cool with people keeping exotic, non-indigenous "pets"-ions and tigers and polar bears, and King Cobras, and foxes? I'm not, both for the animals' sake (an objection that applies at least as much to zoos and circuses) and for public safety. "Owners" can risk their own skins if they want, but not that of their neighbors and the kids next door.

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. Have you seen Transcendence or Her? If you can just live long enough– until the year 2040 or so, last I heard– you can live forever too, say the Singularitarians. They mean you, kids. And Ray’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 to 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”

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 questionscreate satisfaction,follow your bliss, and again: "your own track, kid, not what your guru tells you."

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Always question everything. Without questioning we would never learn. If we ask the wrong questions, we at least learn from our mistakes." 
But you don't have to take his word for it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Generosity & Mortality

Bioethics ends with Generosity, and the character nicknamed “Generosity.” Thassa constantly channels Richard Dawkins sans bluster or hubris (one reason why Powers and I love her): “we are the lucky ones,” he said.
And she says
Everyone alive should feel richly content, ridiculously ahead of the game, a million times luckier than the unborn
No one should be anything but dead.
Everything that is, is ours.

She’s right, of course; but of course like the rest of us she finally has a hard time holding those thoughts and holding off intermittent existential despair. Maybe none of us has alleles long enough to sustain our most elevated moments of transcendent insight. Alas. But maybe, too, their very transience and instability is what makes those moments so special.

Older Daughter amazed me by participating in NaNoWriMo, ”national novel-writing month,” a public writing project in which participants pounded out 50,000 words in thirty days. I was so impressed with her determination and stamina. I’d have felt more like Russell Stone, or a weak-willed Sisyphus, if you’d made me do that: “I have to go take my own life.”

All writing is re-rewriting. In the past that’s always slowed us down. If we’re re-writing not just words but genetic code, it may speed us up. Hang on.

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? Scary thought. But “all the world’s a stage”  is scary, too.

Kurton prefers collaborative fiction to singly-authored texts. He’s with techno-utopian Kevin Kelly, in the Updike-Kelly dispute. 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?”  For now our story simply continues with us. Where it all ends remains our most vital question. Unlike some reviewers [JWood... JMcInerney] (but like others), I love the postmodern ambiguous ending of Powers’ story.  “She’s still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceived her, still uncrushed by the collective need for happier endings.” Thassa survives, battered by life but still generous and smiling at fate. We may still imagine her happy.

May we all borrow her generosity and cheer, give all we’ve got right now, and meet the future in due course. The Atlas goes dark every night, but so far it’s always turned back again to the light. Cue the symphony.

In A&P we finish with Christopher Hitchens' Mortality. Not a lot more needs saying, about the courage and grace of his unrepentant, unbowed exit from the only stage he knew just when he was "at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau." It's just too bad we don't get to see what he'd have made of those last "fragmentary jottings." 

How fitting that his last entry (borrowed from Einstein's Dream)  repudiates immortality, in preference for the wholeness and freedom (and meaning) of finite life rounded with a sleep. What a testimonial to life's transient luster he left. Burning the candle of his life at both ends really did give a lovely light.

Life is of course the only stage any of us knows, much as some of us dream of an encore. Just watch Hitch's performance and learn. He was generous to the end. He gave all to his present, now our past and tomorrow's prologue. Our vital question remains: what will life make of itself, on this or other earths?

I don't think Hitch had an opportunity to read A.C. Grayling's The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, but I'll bet he'd have loved these concluding verses:
8. 'In our human world, in the short time we each have,
9. 'We see our duty to make and find something good for ourselves and our companions in the human predicament.'
10. Let us help one another, therefore; let us build the city together,
11. Where the best future might inhabit, and the true promise of humanity be realised at last. 

Hitch's play is done. The play continues. Play on. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Foot, Thomson, Rawls, Moyers, Campbell

Final report presentations continue, on 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 AtPBill Moyers and Joseph Campbell

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. His late-'80s interview with Isaac Asimov is riveting. So is the Neil deGrasse Tyson Cosmos II preview. Here he is recently with Bill McKibben:

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."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What doesn't kill you...

All writing is re-writing, Russell Stone keeps saying. Let's re-write that Nietzschean cliche: What doesn't kill you makes you a liver. So live.

On tap today in Bioethics: we finish with Blackford's Humanity Enhanced, continue with Powers' Generosity: An Enhancement, and get on with more final report presentations (on transhumanism, designer babies, and Henrietta Lacks' HELA cells.)

In A&P it's more Hitch, drawing ominously closer to the terminus of his Mortality. And, more presentations. The end is nigh.

Blackford's last word:
I'm convinced that the crisis we currently face is not the coming of Frankensteinian or apocalyptic technologies that must be controlled as a matter of urgency. Rather, there is a crisis of liberal tolerance...
our lawmakers [have] an opportunity to show their credentials as successors to Locke and Mill. May they rise to the challenge.
In other words, let us go boldly into the unknown country of reconstructive bio-engineering, in the spirit of personal liberty and experimental freedom. Don't over-regulate. Don't block progress. Have no fear.

I want to get behind that message, but then I read Powers' Aussie novelist (not such a knock-off of Blackford, after all) channeling Bill McKibben's Enough voice and again I feel the pull of those old reservations:
Enhancement will mean nothing, in the long run. The remodeling of human nature will be as slapdash and flawed as its remodelers. We'll never feel enhanced. We'll always be banned from some further Eden...
 And then, our Sisyphean hero Stone rehearses the old fear:
So this is how the species ends. Homo sapiens divided, if not into Eloi and the Morlocks, then into demigods and dispossessed, those who can tame living chemistry and those who are mere downstream products...
Meanwhile, Craig Venter's alt-universe alter ego Thomas Kurton pushes fearlessly forward. 
 Apparently Kurton's group has found a network of several crucial genes that help build the gates and portals that channel the brain's molecules of emotion. Control for any of them, and changes in the rest correlate with changes in sanguinity... Tune each of the genes to the right flavor, and you have subject C3-16f ["Miss Generosity"]... 
 And "that's the beauty of the digital-replacement world." We've not all moved there yet, this is still fiction. But the engineers and technotopians are moving, many say resistance is futile. And foolish? Kurton is seductive, with his "microbes that live on dioxins and digest waste plastics. Fast-growing trees that sequester greenhouse gases. Human beings free from all congenital disease." Sounds too irresistibly good.

"Technology changes what we think is intolerable," but the ethical question is whether what we conclude is intolerable can change the technologies we decide to live with, and without. And that question is still open, or so we ethicists must presume.

And as for Miss Generosity, at this pivotal stage of our story: "She herself is far too sunny for her own good. It hasn't yet dawned on her that this story might actually be nonfiction."

It had definitely dawned on Christopher Hitchens, at this stage of his Stage Four decline, that the story of his cancer was all too true. And yet, what grace and focus he musters to give us his eloquent insider's account of just how it feels to leave the country of the living with eyes open to the real meaning of life-and-death reality. How it felt to contemplate never seeing England again.

Nietzsche was wrong, Hitch reports: what hasn't killed you (yet) still weakens and debilitates. That may seem a necessary illusion for most of us, for most of our days. Hitch ends chapter 6, though, with the most Hitchian of statements: "the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else." 

In case you missed it, an earlier observation counters the mood of disillusion and offers more than solace for a life well lived. 
"A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so."
So don't. Just live.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, and the Hitch

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein (and Barry Smith on Wittgenstein),ArendtPopper & Kuhn in LH, and the infamous Christopher ("God is not great") Hitchens, among others in AtP.

We're also reading Hitchens in A&P, his incredibly inspiring Mortality. No atheists in foxholes or cancer wards? Hitch was here.

But before I forget: the Earth Day debate with Rabbi Rami was terrific, at least from my spot in the circle. We need to do thatmore often, get together with our students and exchange ideas. Too many of the gatherings on the 3d floor of our building, lately, are about things like copy machines and future schedules. For what it's worth.

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn't admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family historywas less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might "capture reality" and toward a more constructive inquiry into "the relationship between language and us."

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to "explain" Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed "our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given." That's what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.

Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It's supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its "meaning-as-use" was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called "Glorious Accident") tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.

"A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion," it says he said on the wall in Vandy's Buttrick Hall. It doesn't say where or when (1929) he said it. It's in the posthumous collection Culture and Valueright below "Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed." Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That's from Douglas Adams, but curiously it's also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein's biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn't give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. "Explaining," says novelist Richard Ford, "is where we all get into trouble."

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.

Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth

She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.

Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists "brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders" without reflection. There's nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas. Best Popper quote:
True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.

“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.
I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.

Max Lerner published America as a Civilization in 1957, setting the stage for AtP. He "started as an impressive scholar," at Harvard and elsewhere, before taking up journalism. His big book of America, oddly described as the intellectual history John Dewey would have written had he been Max Lerner, spotlighted its "special capacity for innovation and adaptation." Some think that was always an overblown form of jingoistic exceptionalism, others think it's the mojo that got Apollo to the moon and that we need badly to recover.  

I.F. ("Izzy") Stone, "radical journalist turned classicist," turned late attention to Socrates/Plato (it's a deficiency of his Trial of Socrates that he made no attempt to separate their views) and concluded that the great gadfly - whose pestiferous social role, ironically, was not unlike Stone's own - was a conceited snob who "didn't give a damn about democracy." That seems excessive.

British-born Christopher Hitchens chose to become an American, and no American ever exercised his freedom of expression to greater effect. He wasn't afraid to change his mind in public, but through all his changes remained faithful to his hero Orwell's hatred of dictatorship and servility. 

He was verbally pugnacious, loquacious, frequently outrageous, and is much missed even by many of his religious and political opponents. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, pioneering geneticist, and unabashed convert to Christianity, became his friend and medical consultant. Unlike fellow "horseman" Dan Dennett, facing his own health crisis, Hitch did not bat away the solicitous prayers offered (sincerely or sardonically) by the faithful on his behalf. ("Did you also sacrifice a goat?") But he never retracted his position on religion - that it's poisonous, harmful, "irreducibly servile and masochistic" and infantile. 
“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think—though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one—that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”   God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything... 92Y... wfb
As noted, we're reading his incredible deathbed testament, Mortality, in A&P. It's a pretty eloquent rebuttal of the charge that atheists somehow duck or fail the question of meaning. Not even his strongest critics would deny that Hitch's life was full of it. Meaning, that is.
"A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so."
Finally balded by chemo but still vital and defiant and inspiring, he wrote and debated (here with creationist Dembski) right to the end of a rich life cut short by cancer. His "closing remarks" deserve to last. The view from this atheist's "foxhole" was anything but servile.

"Take the risk of thinking for yourself..."