Delight Springs

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Stay human

Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation found its way into the conversation yesterday, both in CoPhi and Happiness. What's special about face-to-face encounters? Why didn't Boethius just write up his Consolation as a soliloquy? Isn't texting and tweeting a lot more like talking to yourself than to another, even another you've invented or hallucinated? Is all this screen-time really making us happier?

Jonathan Franzen (whose Purity I can already recommend, four chapters in) features lots of conversation. He reviews Turkle:
When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins... And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed... children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.
I knew that. We've been carving away all semester, and I've begun calling out students when I notice them checking out of our conversations in class. It makes us all uncomfortable. Good.

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.
That's the nub of it. Empathy, fellow-feeling, openness, spontaneity, depth seem threatened by our newfound excess of mediated distraction. It's a big price to pay for an end to boredom.

And the threat to happiness is bigger still. Those Alan Watts tweets about washing this dish, taking this step, are on target. (Ironically, yes.)  "Unitasking," Turkle calls it. It might just be the medicine we need.
One start toward reclaiming conversation is to reclaim solitude. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time. Think of unitasking as the next big thing. In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.
But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.
A human way. As Colbert keeps saying: stay human.

5:45/6:43, 69/69
ontinue reading the main story

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

If you're happy and you know it

In Happiness today we'll note Frederic Lenoir's sensible concession, countering an earlier invitation to be "happy every moment," that that no one is happy all the time. That's more reasonable. But, maybe a zen form of the broader ambition can be salvaged with just a bit of attentive adjustment. Alan Watts, who lives timelessly on in cyberspace as insinuated by the film Her, puts it smartly:
Dispelling dread isn’t a matter of trying to forget about washing dishes.
 9 hours ago9 hours ago It is realizing that in actual fact you only have one dish to wash, ever: this one; only one step to take, ever: this one. And that is Zen. 
And is that happiness?

It might be interesting to funnel all of our discussion questions today through the "one dish" filter, and ask what would Alan say?
  • Can you confirm the claim that we always recur to our happiness set-point? Have you experienced unsustained highs or lows? Do you think you've raised your personal set-point, over the course of your life? Are you working to do so?
  • Do you anticipate a "mellow" future? Do you dread the prospect of senescence?
  • Are we really "visceral egoists"? And isn't it an error to include Adam Smith (as opposed to some free-marketeers who think they're following him) as one of these? ("There is nothing is Adam Smith to support a 'greed is good' mentality,"write Solomon & Higgins.) Are you an altruist?
  • Have you personally experienced the phenomenon of (un-)happy contagion?
  • If schaudenfreude can be explained in evolutionary terms, can cooperation and the spirit of mutual support be similarly explained?
In actual fact we only have one question to answer, the one Lenoir finds frequently annoying: "Are you happy?"

5:30/6:42, 72/75

Monday, September 28, 2015


The most interesting thing to me about today's CoPhi subject, Boethius, is that he could find any "consolation" at all in "Philosophy's" theodicy. His Comfort Woman convinced him of the divine necessity of his own brutal sacrifice, for the greater good - or Good, in the Platonic perfectionist sense. He had to accept the notion that some must give all, in an unjust and irreparable cause, and moreover that this is part of a perfect plan. I don't think I could do that, though it surely would make those last hours pass more peaceably. (Of course there's also the objection that it probably isn't true.)

It's difficult not to take Boethius more as a late Stoic (his anti-Stoical protestations notwithstanding) than an early Christian. He doesn't brandish the latter identity at all in his final testament, as might have been expected of one whose time on earth is nearly up. If he anticipated waking, post-torture, in a personal heaven, he didn't let on. "Consolation of Philosophy makes references solely to ancient Greeks and Romans - not a single Christian author or figure appears in it, not even Jesus." (The Cave and the Light)

Bertrand Russell could not "think of any European man of learning so free from superstition and fanaticism... He would have been remarkable in any age; in the age in which he lived, he is utterly amazing."

The other thing especially noteworthy about Boethius is his focus, right to the end, on human happiness as the point of existence, a form of divinity in which all may participate. As Russell notes, that almost sounds pantheistic. Lots of things had to be glozed over, about Boethius, to turn him into a Christian martyr.

But he's still an admirable figure, more admirable even than his big fan Ignatius J. Reilly realized.

5:30/6:41, 69/80

Friday, September 25, 2015

"My first act"

Yesterday's CoPhi topic, free will, blended pretty seamlessly into the "molecules of emotion" in Happiness. I posed a question as to whether our ease and familiarity with the language of chemical contentment - dopamine, serotonin, oxytociun, re-uptake inhibitors and the like - didn't signal some sort of surrender to a model of mind that wouldn't sustain belief in free will.
Does it bother you to think of your happiness being governed by the "molecules of emotion"? Is this an objectionably reductive way of understanding subjectivity and the mind, or merely a strategically useful handle on one's state of well-being? Does it over-objectify experience, or imply a deterministic worldview at odds with your notion of free will?
I couldn't find anyone who admitted to any unease of this sort, or who really even understood the question. That might indicate excessive and misplaced concern on my part. Or, it might just be a feather in the cap of neuroscience, and more evidence of its success in planting a paradigm of inhospitality to indeterminism.

Turning to a less abstract approach, I solicited practical advice for how to trip those happy-making molecules at will, as it were. We must believe that, at least, to be a reasonable aspiration. Why else study the conditions of happiness, if not to learn their application in everyday life? What other "inner work" could we be talking about, when we talk about choosing happiness?

No one really came up with anything much beyond pharmacology, which again reinforces the model of mind I find problematically reductive. So we moved on to discuss "rumination" and how it differs from healthy reflection. We chewed on that, most of us, while ambling about campus in the rays of late afternoon: always the best medicine.

The key, it seems to me, remains the old concept of attention. When William James "just about touched bottom," then pulled himself up by his and Charles Renouvier's bootstraps, he was at full attention.
"I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier's second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — 'the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts' — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." 
Is free will an illusion? I too assume it need not be. But let's assume the choice is yours.

6:30/6:39, 67/74

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Choosing free will

More in class today on free will. Augustine's theological commitment to the concept is one hook, neuroscience is another. "Our brains take decisions before our minds are aware of them," reports the BBC podcast I've asked students to consider.

"But there's evidence that whether or not we have free will, believing in it is good for us." Some experiments support the claim that those who believe in free will, and act on that belief, are by various measures happier, healthier, more conscientious and ethically responsible, less liable to cheat, steal, and lie.

The "happier" claim is most arresting, or it will be for us in Happiness class this afternoon. William James, in his books but more impressively in the totality of his post-free will crisis lifetime, supports it too. One day he "just about touched bottom," the next he resolved that "my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will," and in subsequent decades he certainly seemed to find pragmatic vindication for the concept. In his own terms, he found it better for him to believe in free will. Far better. That's not proof, but neither is it irrelevant or illusory.

But is it an adequate answer to Gregg Caruso's contention (and Sam Harris's) that as a society we would be better off giving it up, even if some individuals like James would not be? Caruso:
I maintain that life without free will may actually be good for our well being, and our relationships with others, since it could tend to eradicate an often destructive form of moral anger, a kind of moral anger that's corrosive to our relationships and to our social policies...
We need to acknowledge the role that luck plays in our lives, who we are, and how we turn out... Let's give up the belief in free will, and with it, the pernicious belief in just-deserts, that people justly deserve what they get. Let's leave this adequate notion behind, lose our moral anger and stop blaming the victim. Instead, let's turn our attention to the difficult task of addressing the causes that lead to criminality, to wealth inequity, and educational inequity. Once we relinquish the belief in free will, this will allow us to look more clearly at the causes and more deeply at the systems that shape individuals and their behavior, and this will allow us to adopt more humane and more effective policies in education, criminal justice, and social policies.
 Sounds great. It might be the right choice, if we have one. But I don't think it would have got William James up off the floor, when he touched bottom. I'm not sure it would have got me up out of bed this morning at 5 am. I choose to suspend final judgment on this issue. Or think I do.

5:30/6:38, 61/88

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A passion for truth

That last Discussion Question is the one that really got us going in Happiness class yesterday, the one about whether religion or spirituality add years to one's life - seven years, specifically, according to the cited study... presumably seven quality years, my quip about the mitigating effects of all those hours lost in Sunday School notwithstanding.

I said I was prepared to believe it, so long as we understand "spirituality" inclusively and naturalistically. There is such a thing as humanist, secular, and atheistic spirituality, and if the point is to believe in something larger than oneself (not necessarily a god, possibly just people, the planet, or the starry heavens above) then godless spirituality should qualify for the Life-Extension dividend too. As Andre Comte-Sponville says, experience and a universe should suffice if anything does.

Not surprisingly, in the ensuing discussion the name of Professor Dawkins quickly came up. He was alleged to have denied, in The God Delusion, that there is any objective truth or goodness in the universe. I didn't recall him saying that, but if he did (I said) he misspoke.

But on further reflection, I can't imagine him writing that. Or even implying it. Say what you will about RD's polemically provocative style and tendency to shoot from the hip, expressing ill-formed judgments about women (recall his many dust-ups over others' feminist sensibilities), boys (the young clock-maker in Texas), "faithheads," etc., it must be acknowledged that the man is passionate for truth. In fact, he has apologized (sorta) for precisely that: "Sorry if I go a bit over the top in my passion for truth."

In God Delusion he wrote,
when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal force, the truth does not necessarily lie midway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong. And that justifies passion on the other side.
A passion for truth is nothing to apologize for. Intemperance, incivility, and insult in its name may be. That's why I'm toying with the idea of trying out an improvised version of John Rawls' "Original Position" thought experiment in next semester's Atheism & Philosophy course. I'd ask everyone to don the "veil of ignorance" as to their own (ir-)religious attitudes and beliefs, and just join a civil conversation about atheism and concepts of an afterlife without so much demonstrative personal investment in their own preconceptions. At the end we'd raise the veil and evaluate our performance not in the light of who we are individually, but how much kinder and gentler we might be as a collaborative community in passionate pursuit of truth.

Yes, I know, I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one.
NOTE: If you're reading this at Wordpress, you might be missing something. Check out version 2.0 at Blogger...

5:30/6:37, 56/87

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Stoic spirituality

Seneca's "On the Shortness of Life" is so full of practical wisdom and, for those in my line of work, positive reinforcement:
Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only... We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters?
I wouldn't put it in terms of "surrender" to the past, though. We study the old dead philosophers because the best that's been thought, said, and written better prepares us to meet present and future with equanimity and intention. For instance...

Before class yesterday my wife texted that a friend and her family had been involved in a serious automobile accident in Florda, with the little girls suffering serious injury. "I'm very upset." What would a Stoic say? Popular caricature suggests a cold and inhumane response like "Don't be upset. An emotional reaction changes nothing..." etc.

But the more time I spend reading and reflecting on the old Stoic texts, the less I think that's what Seneca and his school would say. Theirs would be a more measured judgment: "Your upset is understandable, and natural for our kind. Our humanity is a hybrid of reasoned reflection and feeling, we must allow both their due. Acknowledge your emotions, register their practical instruction, and move forward." Something like that.

Similar issues arise in Happiness this afternoon, when we'll wonder about the extent to which it may be possible for persons to do the "internal work" of Stoic adjustment required for hybrid happiness. And, an aside in our reading today has caught my attention, the claim that religious/spiritual people add years to their lives. I'm prepared to believe that, if "spiritual" is construed in its full and natural signification. Andre Comte-Sponville:
The universe is our home; the celestial vault is our horizon; eternity is here and now. This moves me far more than the Bible or the Koran. It astonishes me far more than miracles (if I believed in them). Compared to the universe, walking on water is a cinch!
Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
The Stoics entertained a range of religious views, but "experience suffices" pretty much captures what they had to tell us of our hybrid nature. Sufficit.

5:30/6:36, 53/84

Monday, September 21, 2015

Seize the weekend

Great outdoorsy weekend, highlighted by our discovery of a long new leg of Greenway connecting Warner Parks to Bellevue. How long's it been open, and why hadn't anyone told me!? Younger Daughter proposed that outing, her first voluntary recreational bikeride in recent memory but, she promises, not her last. What an easy escape, pedaling past baled fields and ball fields and rivers and woods, and an exorbitantly expensive private school, right up to the Horse Farm where she once had riding lessons. Simple pleasures are best, especially when seized spontaneously. Carpe diem isn't always grandly heroic, sometimes it's just  a Saturday in the park.

Or the beer garden. I was so inspired, I went and joined the Tailgate mug club. They have a sundown beer garden site (they call it a "barn") well worth the price. Carpe cervisia.

And then yesterday, so mildly autumnal I never had to set foot in the house all afternoon. Did set foot in the pool, with slightly less enthusiasm than Saturday. Approaching each submersion now as potentially the last.

When I was a younger person myself, I was very little attuned to the elements and the seasons. How many beautiful Fall days of yore did I squander indoors, watching televised games I really could care less about, thinking I had all the time in the world before me? How many quality hammock hours did I miss? Too many. "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity." Doing my best to compensate now.

We turn to the Stoics in CoPhi today. Old Seneca had it right, our problem is not a paucity of time but a failure to make the most of the time we do have. "The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” Life is short, but the days can still be long if we know how to use them.

5:30/6:36, 60/81

Friday, September 18, 2015


Interesting Happiness discussions yesterday, addressing our text's assertion that "illusory happiness does not interest us." Frederic Lenoir's point is that philosophers are truth-seekers, unwilling to swap "lucidity" for happiness, uninterested in becoming Voltaire's "happy idiots."

Yes, we agreed, but... what do you mean, "we"? We are knee-deep in the age of virtual reality, entertainment/ "reality" programming, sports fanaticism, and just generally the fuzzing-up of any boldly-drawn line between what's real and what's fabricated.

For that matter, ever since our "idiot" ancestors started scratching images on cave walls we've been telling stories. That's virtual reality too.

I found myself invoking old Captain Pike (didn't even have to mention the Next Generation's holodeck): "You have reality, he has his illusion. We'll see who has the better fate." (That's how I'm remembering it, it's been awhile. I'll see if I can fact-check that one.) [UPDATE: "Captain Pike has an illusion and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant."]

Then there's the Matrix, the Experience Machine... and as one of us pointed out, you don't even have to invoke sci-fi to see how rapidly we're running up on non-fictional forms of VR. Ocular something-or-other (What exactly did you call it, Damon?) has already arrived in the brave new world of illusion-for-sale.

[UPDATE: "Oculus Rift," "next-gen VR," "the magic of presence"...

"There's no evidence that this is causing damage to your health." But what might it do to your "lucidity," let alone your curb appeal?]

I'll look into details. There are more than a couple of happy illusions I'd pay for right now. For one thing, I'd like to awaken from the nightmare of the GOP political campaign. Or sleep it off.

5:30/6:33, 61/89

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Time out

It was a different kind of day at school, yesterday.

Arriving on campus I headed not to the office but instead straight to a colleague's speaking appearance at the Student Union. He was speaking on a bioethical theme, wondering about the future of intelligent machines and how we'll relate to them. Fascinating to think we may one day have to parse the autonomy and ethical standing of our own creations.

En route to the talk I was intercepted by my favorite student Research Assistant, who says I'm the only teacher she knows who takes classes outdoors on these beautiful Fall days. That's one good reason to continue pushing the peripatetic approach. We've become sedentary strangers to the sky. We need to look up and take our bearings, chart our path by the clouds and the stars, place our small indoor lives in proper perspective.

And we did, again, in CoPhi. But our time was shorter yesterday because we convened at the library, for a tutorial on research. Good information from my friend David on how to make the most of the Philosophers Index, Google Scholar, and the like, before my crash course on Pyrrho and Epicurus.

When discussion time finally came, we spilled out into the late afternoon sunshine and took a couple slow laps around the Science courtyard pondering the ultimate Epicurean question: is death anything to fear?

As always, interesting and unexpected things were said. And conventional, boring things. Wheat and chaff are separable, but it takes time.

That's the big Epicurean message, isn't it? Time is of the essence. The good life takes time. Take time for happiness. No time like the present. The time to live is now. Our ground-time here is brief. Time's a'wastin'. We're almost out of time, it'll soon be time to go.

So, take a breath, relax, enjoy the time you've got. It was in that mood and spirit that I decided to stop at the Mayday Brewery on my way home last night, and was pleasantly rewarded to encounter two former students with kind things to say about those old classes. One said Happiness class had a major impact on her life.

That's what we all want, isn't it, to have an impact before time's up?

5:30/6:33, 61/87

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Back to the garden

Good classes again yesterday, continuing to explore what's good about the good life of eudaimon in CoPhi, and in Happiness wondering if it's as easy to dispel our instinctive fear of oblivion or a punitive post-existence in a supernatural afterlife as Epicurus said it is.

I'm not the only one, it emerged, who as a small and trusting child was taught and inadvertently terrorized by a bedtime prayer before the age of reason:
"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." 
Another "aging professor [who] laments his shrinking brain" has recently noted the abusive aspects of that little rhyme.

I don't blame my parents, who with the best of intentions simply transmitted an old religious meme that's been kicking around unchallenged for eons (or since 1711, allegedly). They didn't talk much about Hell or eternal divine retribution in our home (leaving that unpleasantness to the preacher and Sunday School teachers), nor do I think they thought about it much themselves. And therein lies a huge but non-malicious cultural error of omission that philosophy must rectify.

It was in the name of philosophy that I thus responded as I did to the student who yesterday insisted the error is not that of those who instill fear in their young, but rather of those like Epicurus and me, who would slough it off. It's not unreasonable or irrational, he suggested, to fear a god who just might be crazy enough to commit the innocent children he loves (as George Carlin reminded us) to the flames.

So I testified to my own Epicurean moment, as a youngster, when the whole frightening fable just no longer felt real. The student said a belief that makes you uncomfortable (bit of an understatement, that) might still be true. Yes, I said, but discomfort might be reason enough to explore other worldviews. And, I added, "if there's a retributive god out there, may he strike me down. No, wait: may he strike you down."

It got a laugh, but there's a serious point here. So many believers (and non-believers) are so frequently devastated by life's various natural calamities and moral calumnies, that faith loses all credibility as a shield against punitive bolts from heaven. Heaven loses all credibility as a saving alternative to hell.

And that's why Epicurus and his Garden friends would applaud Professor Dawkins' bus billboard campaign. (Unlike him, though, I think they'd prefer to leave "probably" on the bus.)

I was asked if I agree with Dawkins' rhetorical extremity, in calling religious indoctrination "child abuse." I don't use that language myself, as there seems a crucial distinction between the unwitting harm of much indoctrination and the exceptionless malevolent harm of assault and torture. My parents were no torturers. Most religious fundamentalists are not torturers. But they do inflict harm, in the form of an unfounded fear. I forgive them, they know not what they do.

And I say, with Epicurus: Relax, and enjoy. We are stardust, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden. Park that bus right here.

5:30/6:32, 60/85

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The good life

What does it take to live the good life? That was our wander-topic yesterday in CoPhi. Many of us agreed with Aristotle, that a good life revolves around the cultivation and habitual exercise of virtue, character, and one's personal potential. And we must be "sufficiently equipped with external goods" to be happy (eudaimon), but how much is sufficient? How "fashionable" must we be?

Many also indicated a preference for "nice things" and name brands, regretting the expense of clothes and other shiny signals of status in this society but unsure how to disengage from the consumer chase. "Beware all enterprises that require new clothes," said Thoreau. Simplify, simplify.

Epicurus is on deck for next time, not a moment too soon. The mania for things can seem inescapable, until you see how others have escaped. You don't have to join a Garden commune to begin the process of simplification, you just have to form a habit of closer scrutiny: is the appeal of this apparel real, or is it socially constructed and hence de-constructible? How much of my valuable time, how much irretrievable life, is this bauble really worth? Do the people I care about really care about the brand I wear? When was the last time one of my consumer purchases made my life really flourish?

But, we must be sensible about simplicity. There's some truth too in Mark Twain's observation: "Clothes do make the man. Naked people have very little influence in society."

5:30/6:31, 55/83

Monday, September 14, 2015


We meet Aristotle today in CoPhi. Finally, a guide who can really help us begin to make our way out of Plato's cave. Plato won't do it from his rationalist prototype armchair. Nor, despite his Republic/Book VII homage to the great gadfly, will Plato's Socrates. Dreaming of transcendent perfection doesn't make it so, and as much as I love asking questions, there comes a time for provisional hypotheses.

What we most need, and get, from Aristotle is a different metaphor. Pace Plato's metaphysics, we don't know ourselves to be benighted cave-dwellers, blinded by the very material that composes not only our habitat but also our perceptual selves.

We do know we're standing on a planet full of facts and relations, in a realm of process and change, in (cosmic-calendrically speaking) the pre-dawn of intelligent human inquiry. We do know we need more light.

Aristotle's the guy who first thought to bring a candle, in the form of an intense practical curiosity about everything before us, and an indefatigable interest in analyzing, cataloging, comparing, and reflecting on all we see. It's not that we've got to climb out of a terrestrial hole, into the empyrean light. We've just got to clarify the immediate environment, carefully noting how things are, admitting our finite fallibility, anticipating our empirical errors, correcting them as we go.

So I will again encourage ambitious students to consider the ongoing epic of our western heritage, and will confess my partiality to the candle-bearing empiricists as against those rationalist denizens of darkness who say we'll never have our eyes opened so long as we're still staring at the cave wall they consider this earth to be. I side with those who say there's plenty of truth to discover and tell about life here on the ground. Light will be cast, by those who light a candle.

Another sturdy candle was lit when Arthur Herman published The Cave and the Light a couple of years ago and wrote in the preface,
Instead of trying to rise above mundane reality, Aristotle believed the philosopher's job was to explain how the world works, and how as human beings we can find our proper place in it. There is no cave; only a world made of things and facts. "The fact is our starting point..."
As it should be, on my view. But I hesitate to endorse the rigid-sounding dichotomy Herman then pins on the classic schism between empiricists and rationalists, sorting them into the camps of science, logic, and technology on Team Aristotle, and theology, mysticism, poetry, and art on Team Plato. That's too neat, too black-and-white. Good empiricists are open to the experience of wonder, mystery, poetry, and art. Good rationalists like facts and gadgets too (see Rebecca Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex).

It's finally just a question of emphasis and attitude: how do we frame our condition, where do we think shining a light might take us? To Plato's (or anyone else's) Formal heaven? Or to a deeper appreciation of the meaning and possibilities of life on earth? It's a great question.

5:30/6:30, 51/80

Friday, September 11, 2015

Your perfect right is wrong

Rain kept us in, in CoPhi yesterday morning, where the topic of choice was love. Told again my tale of romantic friends who've held out for a perfect match, a singular better half without which they'd be forever incomplete, and in consequence spent the better part of their lifetimes alone. That story ends with a twist, now, since my friends finally found adequate matches in their later innings - or would they say "perfect"ones? Either way, my contention is that we ought not condemn ourselves to searching for needles in haystacks, when we might find what we're looking for right under our noses, out in the open. Might even find a surfeit of possibilities.

Not everyone is willing to renounce the pursuit of perfection, though I do think I notice fewer young people lately who say they're waiting for their perfect prince(ss). Those who do, the Christian Platonists, tend also to say that they're trusting God, the ultimate, to arrange it. But for most, it seems, love - like happiness - is a choice and not a destiny. I call this progress.

By late afternoon the skies had cleared, and we concluded Happiness by choosing to take our discussions outdoors. The last chapters of Daniel Haybron's Very Short Intro left us with many choices: Will having kids make you happier? Or better? Is acting badly "out of the question," even if it makes you happier? What will they say about you at your funeral? Is it true that no old person every entertains a final regret at not having ended it all much earlier? Are our devices and the social media they plug us into turning us into ironically anti-social drones?

But the topic we finally chose, and (so far as I could tell) did not answer uniformly, was simply to comment on Haybron's plainest statement of principle: "One should not be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness." It may be your perfect right, but it is still wrong. At least, it's our right to say so.

5:20/6:28, 65/84

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Pretty petty problems, pale by comparison

It started to rain just after I reached my office yesterday, meaning I'd have to deal with a wet bikeride to class or else hoof it under an umbrella. Pretty petty problem, a first-worlder if ever there was one. But I grumbled internally anyway.

Then the phone rang, reporting a stranger's real problem: an unexpected death in the family, deep sadness, a plea for emotional support and guidance.

It seems our everyday default, even those of us fortunate enough to be gainfully employed in the ideas industry - at least that's what academia was supposed to be, before the paper-pushing "Student Success"-mongers gained their ascendency - is set for "petty." We gratuitously, habitually sweat the small stuff until something exceptional wrenches us out of our quotidian sleepwalk.

So I pedaled to class just a little more mindfully, and talked about all that... about how the best traditions in philosophy east and west remind us to rise above all the small stuff, the trivial internal monologue of complaint. They teach us "how to die," or really how to live in the shadow of mortality with courage, integrity, equanimity, and on the best days joy.

It was a good day to polish Socrates' pedestal, and to appreciate the seeming effortlessness of Taoist harmony.  A good day to wonder what kind of  person fears death, and what kind of soul it is that learns how to really live.

5:30/6:27, 72/83

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Desire to learn

We're doubling up in CoPhi this afternoon, making up for ground lost to Monday's Labor Day off. That means we'll be introducing not only Buddha, Confucius, and the Taoists, but Socrates and Plato as well. Wouldn't that be an interesting dinner party?

Speaking of the Symposium...
"And what does he gain who possesses the good?" "Happiness," I replied; "there is less difficulty in answering that question." "Yes," she said, "the happy are made happy by the acquisition of good things. Nor is there any need to ask why a man desires happiness; the answer is already final." "You are right." I said. "And is this wish and this desire common to all? and do all men always desire their own good, or only some men?-what say you?" "All men," I replied; "the desire is common to all." "Why, then," she rejoined, "are not all men, Socrates, said to love, but only some them? whereas you say that all men are always loving the same things." "I myself wonder," I said,-why this is." "There is nothing to wonder at," she replied; "the reason is that one part of love is separated off and receives the name of the whole, but the other parts have other names."
Diotima is pushing Socrates up her ladder of love, to an appreciation of immortal beauty and truth. Her improbable Platonic theory holds that love is an impulse ultimately to possess abstract universals, not particular persons, places, and other "good things" whose deficiency will become evident to the scrupulous lover of wisdom in his ascent from the cave of phenomenal ignorance to the light of the Forms.


I think, to the contrary, that William James shared far more sense on this subject when (we noted yesterday in Happiness) he wrote in The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,
The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all. Some desires, truly enough, are small desires; they are put forward by insignificant persons, and we customarily make light of the obligations which they bring.  But the fact that such personal demands as these impose small obligations does not keep the largest obligations from being personal demands.
Desires in the human sphere, at this end of the ladder, run the gamut from large to small, grand to petty. But for most of us, most of the time, they're precise and particular. The Platonic philosopher who dreams of Truth and Beauty is really chasing particular true and beautiful persons, places, and things. And the philosopher, no less than anyone else, is liable to error and delusion when imagining what those occasions of fulfillment will be like. Living is the process of learning which of our elusive desires can be met, which can be reasonably aspired to, and which must be sacrificed.
Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire. Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition?‑-he cannot do both. Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta?‑-both cannot be the choice of his heart. 
Not if he's a virtuous Victorian, anyway.

And, living well is the process of learning (against the grain of our habitual blindness) that others' many and various desires merit consideration too. There's real truth and beauty in seeing this particular light.

5:30/6:26, 74/87

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Lovely Labor Day holiday yesterday, plenty of quality time with the family, the grill, the pool, the hammock, Hume, and the Redford/Nolte version of "A Walk in the Woods" at the cineplex. The script didn't take too many liberties with Bill Bryson's smart and witty prose, the film was beautifully shot in Appalachia, and my take-away folds nicely into this afternoon's message in Happiness class: there's more to a life well-lived than being comfortable, the journey of life is unpredictable, and so we go.

Early on, Katz (Nolte) asks"Are you happy?" Bryson (Redford) says "What the hell kind of question is that?" He never answers that question, but eventually demonstrates the more important point: ultimate well-being requires some effort, some discomfort along the way, and some doubt. But if you don't quit, you can go home when you're ready.

So now I want to read the book again, of course. I'm a bit worried about that obnoxious and chatty know-it-all girl they ditched.
“I have long known that it is part of God's plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident that she was a rarity.” 
I don't particularly want to walk the AT myself, except in bits and pieces, or imaginatively. But Bryson does reaffirm my commitment to ambulation in general.
“I know a man who drives 600 yards to work. I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space. When I asked her once why she didn't walk to the gym and do five minutes less on the treadmill, she looked at me as if I were being willfully provocative. 'Because I have a program for the treadmill,' she explained. 'It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.' It hadn't occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard.” 
Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. On average, the total walking of an American these days - that's walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls - adds up to 1.4 miles a week...That's ridiculous.”  
And what did the experience do for Bryson?
“I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for the wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn't know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”  
Loved this scene.

But I think you can be curious and Big Picture, both. And read books, "TV for smart people." And watch just a little TV.

5:30/6:26, 69/91

Friday, September 4, 2015


Yesterday sweltered, but we beat the heat in our 8 am CoPhi class. Had a good walk and several great TIB-inspired talks including one older student's hard-learned lesson, generously shared with her younger peers, about not being afraid in life to take risks and to fail. We all fail. We all make mistakes. We all commit errors. We all fall short of expectations. We all could then pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and reboot. We all don't. But this student's wise counsel is that it's never too late to learn. The message was echoed in Happiness later, when our conversation hit on the subject of "learned helplessness."

We sat in the morning shade of the library courtyard and discussed "success," giving me an excuse to share again one of my favorite hard-edged William James lines. More than a century ago he wrote to H.G. Wells: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That - with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word 'success' - is our national disease." That, along with the corollary that if at first you don't squalidly succeed in this society, you're off the island.

We're still seeking a reliable cure for our national disease, but I think the kind of dialogue we've been enjoying this semester shows real promise.

Also showing promise this morning: our long-festering and possibly soon-flowering walkabout Study Abroad proposal. We have an itinerary, a syllabus, and after yesterday's long afternoon session with the spreadsheet we now have a budget too. Watch this space for details.

Oh, and thanks to Colm Toibin's The Master we now also have another promising angle on one of our course's site visit subjects. Henry James, the "younger and shallower" brother of William (by the latter's own admission), "walked the streets of Rye (Sussex) almost every day now..." I knew that had to be true. One day soon we will follow the Master's footsteps.

5:30/6:23, 73/97

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Different PsOV on the PBD

Whenever we talk about the Pale Blue Dot in CoPhi, someone invariably says they find it depressing to contemplate our smallness in the vast uncharted cosmos. I used to be surprised by that reaction, now I'm just reminded that all my talk about the endless varieties of PsOV we ought to co-philosophize about, in order to deepen our mutual understanding and tolerance, is more than just talk. So, we talk about it.

The brain that contemplates is, as the poet said, wider than the sky. When we place ourselves in that frame, with the "You are here" arrow to orient by, doesn't it seem as if the universe shrinks to fit? Or that the place we call home expands? Doesn't the cosmic perspective, internalized, shared, and transmitted to as much of the next generation as can be reached, begin to transform us into a more cosmopolitan species with that much greater a chance of living long and prospering? Doesn't something like a global consciousness begin to suggest itself? Can't we begin again to entertain the possibility that humans are in fact capable of greatness?

Depressing? No, for me the vision of our little pixel, our fraction of a dot, our mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam, is  uplifiting, inspiring, horizon-stretching, challenging. And beautiful, like the only home we've ever known.

5:30/6:22, 75/93

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why we don't share

We're taking some more time with TIB's testimonials in CoPhi today, in the effort to ingrain a habit of listening critically but respectfully to other points of view while in the perennial process of forging and reevaluating our own. That's what we're supposed to do in Philosophy, and it's what we mostly don't do in public life. More important than what we think of any particular essay is the question What would you say? TIB celebrates multiplicity, of voices and views and friendly exchanges thereof.

One of the questions we went walking with yesterday was:
Have you ever attempted to share your beliefs, convictions, core principles (etc.) in public? (If yes, would you say you did it in a spirit of evangelism and proselytizing, or in a philosophical way? What's the difference? And if no, why not?
Most respondents said they do not even make the attempt, mostly because their past experience of that kind of conversation has been unpleasant, hectoring, divisive, mean-spirited, and, indeed, evangelical. That's disappointing but, given our collective failure to introduce a philosophical alternative to most children, not surprising. If you want a culture of philosophers you have to begin growing it early. But this is a big country, and thousands of us have used TIB's happy medium to initiate the kinds of conversation I still think might be our salvation as a civil society. That's why I keep saying, with William James, that we all have a philosophy. What we don't have is enough practice sharing our philosophies with civility.

It's interesting to note, as TIB II does, that most young people who've participated in the project tend to write about things like money, music, and sports. Also that educators are drawn to this exercise because it gives them an opportunity to "encounter adults thinking hard, not lecturing but soul-searching," empowering young people to follow their example and realize that nobody has all the answers.

We're also looking today at the late great Carl Sagan's philosophical conviction (and Neil Tyson's, and mine) that we'd be a kinder, gentler, more responsible species if we better appreciated our situation as riders on a fragile spaceship earth, a pale blue dot, "the only home we've ever known," that we must cherish and preserve if we want to have a future among the stars. So much blood has been shed, so much misery inflicted, by those deluded kings and emperors who thought they did have the answers and wasted lives to become "momentary masters of a fraction of a dot."

I've already shared my partial list of favorite TIBs, here are a few excerpts.

  • Albert Einstein, An Ideal of Service to Our Fellow Man ...The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with the awareness of—and glimpse into—the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive...
  • Oscar Hammerstein II, Happy Talk ...I believe that it is important for a man to announce that he is happy even though such an announcement is less dramatic and less entertaining than the cries of his pessimistic opposite. Why do I believe I am happy? Death has deprived me of many whom I loved. Dismal failure has followed many of my most earnest efforts. People have disappointed me. I have disappointed them. I have disappointed myself.  ...I don’t believe anyone can enjoy living in this world unless he can accept its imperfection. He must know and admit that he is imperfect, that all other mortals are imperfect, that it is childish to allow these imperfections to destroy all his hope and all his desire to live... It would be folly for an individual to seek to do better—to do better than to go on in his own imperfect way, making his mistakes, riding out the rough and bewildering, exciting and beautiful, storm of life until the day he dies.
  • Victor Hanson, Natural Links in a Long Chain of Being ...I believe all of us are natural links in a long chain of being, and that I need to know what time of day it is, what season is coming, whether the wind is blowing north or from the east, and if the moon is still full tomorrow night, just as the farmers who came before me did. The physical world around us constantly changes, but human nature does not. We must struggle in our brief existence to find some transcendent meaning during reoccurring heartbreak and disappointment and so find solace in the knowledge that our ancestors have all gone through this before...
  • Penn Jillette, There is No God ...I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy... anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power. All the people I write e-mails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy. But, this “This I Believe” thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life’s big picture, some rules to live by. So, I’m saying, “This I believe: I believe there is no God...”
  • Erroll Morris, There Is Such a Thing as Truth ...There is such a thing as truth, but we often have a vested interest in ignoring it or outright denying it. Also, it’s not just thinking something that makes it true. Truth is not relative. It’s not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are... It’s not that we find truth with a big “T.” We investigate and sometimes we find things out and sometimes we don’t. There’s no way to know in advance. It’s just that we have to proceed as though there are answers to questions. We must proceed as though, in principle, we can find things out — even if we can’t. The alternative is unacceptable.
  • Azar Nafisi, Mysterious Connections That Link Us Together ...I believe in empathy. I believe in the kind of empathy that is created through imagination and through intimate, personal relationships. I am a writer and a teacher, so much of my time is spent interpreting stories and connecting to other individuals. It is the urge to know more about ourselves and others that creates empathy. Through imagination and our desire for rapport, we transcend our limitations, freshen our eyes, and are able to look at ourselves and the world through a new and alternative lens... 
  • Eboo Patel, We Are Each Other's Business ...I attended high school in the western suburbs of Chicago. The group I ate lunch with included a Jew, a Mormon, a Hindu, a Catholic and a Lutheran. We were all devout to a degree, but we almost never talked about religion. Somebody would announce at the table that they couldn’t eat a certain kind of food, or any food at all, for a period of time. We all knew religion hovered behind this, but nobody ever offered any explanation deeper than “my mom said,” and nobody ever asked for one... A group of thugs in our high school had taken to scrawling anti-Semitic slurs on classroom desks and shouting them in the hallway. I did not confront them. I did not comfort my Jewish friend. Instead I averted my eyes from their bigotry, and I avoided my friend because I couldn’t stand to face him. My friend told me he feared coming to school those days, and he felt abandoned as he watched his close friends do nothing. Hearing him tell me of his suffering and my complicity is the single most humiliating experience of my life.My friend needed more than my silent presence at the lunch table. I realize now that to believe in pluralism means I need the courage to act on it. Action is what separates a belief from an opinion. Beliefs are imprinted through actions. In the words of the great American poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s business; we are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
  • Jackie Robinson, Free Minds and Hearts at Work ...I believe in the human race. I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man’s integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it—and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist.  My fight was against the barriers that kept Negroes out of baseball. This was the area where I found imperfection, and where I was best able to fight. And I fought because I knew it was not doomed to be a losing fight. It couldn’t be a losing fight—not when it took place in a free society...
  • Wallace Stegner, Everything Potent is Dangerous ...what I believe is neither inspirational nor evangelical. Passionate faith I am suspicious of because it hangs witches and burns heretics, and generally I am more in sympathy with the witches and heretics than with the sectarians who hang and burn them. I fear immoderate zeal, Christian, Muslim, Communist, or whatever, because it restricts the range of human understanding and the wise reconciliation of human differences, and creates an orthodoxy with a sword in its hand. I cannot say that I am even a sound Christian, though the code of conduct to which I subscribe was preached more eloquently by Jesus Christ than by any other. About God I simply do not know; I don’t think I can know...
  • Arnold Toynbee, I Agree With a Pagan ...I believe we have no certain knowledge of what is right and wrong and even if we had, I believe we should find it just as hard as ever to do something that we knew for certain to be right in the teeth of our personal interests and inclinations. Actually, we have to make the best judgment we can about what is right and then we have to bet on it by trying to make ourselves act on it, without being sure about it... Since we can never be sure, we have to try to be charitable and open to persuasion that we may, after all, have been in the wrong, and at the same time we have to be resolute and energetic in what we do in order to be effective. It is difficult enough to combine effectiveness with humility and charity in trying to do what is right, but it is still more difficult to try to do right at all, because this means fighting oneself...
  • John Updike, Testing the Limits of What I Know and Feel ... I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication — as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis — is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience... Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

  • podcast
    5:45/6:21, 71/93

    Tuesday, September 1, 2015

    More core conviction

    A student caught me off-guard when I walked into section 12 yesterday afternoon, asserting: "that word peripatetic is overused." It is? Really? Is this an intervention, I asked?

     I 'd thought precisely the opposite, which is why I've been using it so much; and why I'd planned the day's class session and built our course around it. It's not a familiar concept to most of our students, who'd almost always rather hop the bus or skateboard or anything mechanically locomotive, to make the short transit across our campus.

    I tried to be accommodating, spending the balance of our period searching for pluggable synonyms. But "mobile philosophy" (for instance) just isn't as much fun to say. You can't get a good Calvin and Hobbes cartoon out of it to match "pair of pathetic peripatetics". I'm standing by my word, but after today should have less occasion to say it. We'll just be doing it.

    Come to think of it, I've also been saying This I Believe a lot too. I'll look for substitutes. (Personal philosophy, core conviction... or maybe just TIB will do.) I've asked CoPhi students to find moreTIB essays that resonate with them, and briefly to say a bit more about why. I'll do the same for some of mine, which include
    • Albert Einstein, An Ideal of Service to Our Fellow Man... The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with the awareness of—and glimpse into—the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive...
    • Oscar Hammerstein II, Happy Talk
    • Victor Hanson, Natural Links in a Long Chain of Being
    • Penn Jillette, There is No God... I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power. All the people I write e-mails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy. But, this “This I Believe” thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life’s big picture, some rules to live by. So, I’m saying, “This I believe: I believe there is no God...”
    • Erroll Morris, There Is Such a Thing as Truth
    • Azar Nafisi, Mysterious Connections That Link Us Together... I believe in empathy. I believe in the kind of empathy that is created through imagination and through intimate, personal relationships. I am a writer and a teacher, so much of my time is spent interpreting stories and connecting to other individuals. It is the urge to know more about ourselves and others that creates empathy. Through imagination and our desire for rapport, we transcend our limitations, freshen our eyes, and are able to look at ourselves and the world through a new and alternative lens... 
    • Eboo Patel, We Are Each Other's Business
    • Jackie Robinson, Free Minds and Hearts at Work... I believe in the human race. I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man’s integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it—and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist.
      My fight was against the barriers that kept Negroes out of baseball. This was the area where I found imperfection, and where I was best able to fight. And I fought because I knew it was not doomed to be a losing fight. It couldn’t be a losing fight—not when it took place in a free society...
    • Wallace Stegner, Everything Potent is Dangerous
    • Arnold Toynbee, I Agree With a Pagan
    • John Updike, Testing the Limits of What I Know and Feel
    That last phrase from Updike is particularly apt and timely. "Testing the limits" does happen in class occasionally, between students and teacher, but we all need to expand our horizons and become less limited. We're all here to learn.

    5:30/6:20, 68/90