Delight Springs

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Voltaire & Leibniz

Brains, John Campbell was saying in his Berkeley interview, are a big asset. "It's very important that we have brains. Their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk."

Voltaire, dubbed by Russell "the chief transmitter of English influence to France," was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).
Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide
“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

William James called Leibniz's theodicy "superficiality incarnate":
Leibniz's feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind...
And James's comments continue, in a similarly scathing vein. He was particularly incensed by the disconnect between Leibniz's philosophy and the suffering of a distraught Clevelander whose plight and ultimate suicide stands for the despair of so many through the ages. But if you like Leibniz's defense of the ways of god, maybe you'd love his monadology. Maybe not. But if one substance is good, how good is a practical infinity of them?

Russell raises the basic objection to Leibniz's "fantastical" scheme of windowless monads: if they (we) never really interact, how do they (we) know about each other? It might just be a bizarre collective dream, after all. And the "best possible world" claim is just not persuasive, though many will want to believe it.
People wish to think the universe good, and will be lenient to bad arguments  proving that it is so, while bad arguments proving that it is bad are closely  scanned. In fact, of course, the world is partly good and partly bad, and no ' problem of evil' 
Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” [Voltaire @dawn...Leibniz@dawn... Spinoza Leibniz slides... Voltaire_Leibniz_ James]

"Whatever is, is right." I don't care which Pope* said that, it's crazy. No way to think and live.
Submit.—In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Everything happens from a cause, sure, but not "for a reason" if that's code for "for the best." 

Irremediably, irredeemably bad things happen. Regret is an appropriate first response. Of course we should try to prevent recurrences of the worst (by our lights) that happens.

Voltaire's Candide may be the most devastating parody ever penned. A "logical explanation for everything" leaves the world much as it found it, less than perfect and easy to improve. Feeding the hungry, curing the sick, educating the ignorant, saving the earth, etc., are obvious improvements to begin with. "All is well," Miss Blue? (An obscure reference to a sweet-hearted cleaning lady I used to hear on the radio when I was young, who ruined that phrase for me.) I don't think so.

But the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 did nothing to block Voltaire's "Pangloss" from continuing to insist that everything is the result of a pre-established harmony. What must it be like, to live in a bubble of denial so insulated from reality as to permit a learned person to believe that?

After tornadoes, earthquakes, and other fatal natural disasters, people interviewed on television frequently thank god for sparing them. Hardly a reasonable response, even if a lifetime of indoctrination and insulation makes it "understandable." But to say it in the hearing of survivors whose loved ones weren't spared? Unspeakably insensitive.  If "acts of god" (as the insurance companies put it) take life randomly, and you happened to be one of the random survivors, is gratitude really the humane response?

Candide's statement that "we must cultivate our garden" is a metaphor for not just talking about abstract philosophical questions but instead doing something for our species while we have the opportunity. It's a plea for applied philosophy. I'm fresh from a philosophy conference where, I'm sorry to report, the old bias in favor of Grand Theory still has its champions. Spectators, not ameliorators, more concerned to polish their conceptual palaces than rebuild the crumbling human abode. (Thinking in particular of an environmental ethics session, where activists were slighted for being less than rigorous.)

Voltaire, as noted, was a deist, a freethinker, and a pre-Darwinian. He was not an atheist. But is that just an accident of history? If he'd come along a century later, might he have embraced godlessness?

Hard to know. He marveled at nature's universe, wondered at (didn't shrink from) the stars, and burned with a passion to make a better world. The highest powers are those aligned with that quest, not the complacent and wildly premature contention that this is the best of all possible worlds. His god, in any age, would not have been an excuse for passivity or indifference to the fate of the earth and its riders.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Don't forget to duck, atheists

What do atheists and ducks have in common, aside from the fact that both are gathering this weekend at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis?

Image result for peabody hotel ducks cartoon

UPDATE: meanwhile, a couple-hundred miles to the east in Murfreesboro TN, the MTSU Department of Philosophy & Religion welcomed anthropologist James Bielo (Miami of Ohio) as our latest Lyceum speaker. Bielo detailed the coming attraction of a new Biblical Theme Park in Kentucky called "The Ark Encounter." (Why Kentucky? Well, as one teacher of evolution at UK attests, the ark story with all its preposterous implausibilities still resonates there. Same reason why they tried to put a Creationist Theme Park in Murfreesboro a few years ago.)

Religion as "immersive" entertainment? Well, we were definitely entertained. I hope they were having as much fun in Memphis.

Kentucky Officials File Motion for Federal Judge to Dismiss Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Lawsuit

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Locke, Reid, & Berkeley

Today in CoPhi it's John Locke (not the "Lost" one) and Thomas Reid on personal identity (and John Dunn on Locke's concept of toleration), George Berkeley, and John Campbell on Berkeley's Puzzle.

John Locke has become a more difficult figure to research, ever since the Lost  television series pushed his namesake to the forefront of popular consciousness and search results. The fictional John Locke can walk, not back in civilization but on his freaky island. (But I can't listen to this song.)

The real John Locke, "apostle of the Revolution of 1688" (Russell)  apparently had trouble walking  too.
He was naturally very active, and employed himself as much as his health would permit. Sometimes he diverted himself with working in the garden, which he well understood. He loved walking, but not being able to walk much, through the disorder of his lungs, he used to ride out after dinner...
[I have to keep reminding myself that these "riding" philosophers were on horseback, not bikes. Philosophy Rides, the sequel, will not be a historical survey.]
His bad health was a disturbance to none but himself... his usual drink was nothing but water...
Good for him, I guess. He's not the philosopher I'd most like to spend time in a pub with, though I admire his most pragmatic statement that "the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thought."

His near-dying words were that we should regard this world and life as nothing but a vanity and "a state of preparation for a better." Repugnant words, to a humanist. And yet, other words of his ("all mankind being equal and independent, none ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty") inspired some of our greatest social and political experiments.

And some of our strangest television. Don't tell me what I can't do.

The Locke who inspired the eighteenth century was the philosopher who wired Aristotle's most important insight, that all knowledge comes through experience, into the modern western mind. (Cave & Light)
Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. 

But Walter ("That's the way it is") Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right when he wrote:
“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

Cesar Kuriyama told TED he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”

Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more. 

Locke is more familiar to Americans as the underwriter of our pursuit of life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, we know, edited Locke on that last point.) He defended separation of church and state (as did Thomas Jefferson), and toleration. [AU] A very enlightened guy, for his time and place, but still not clear-sighted about freedom from worship for those who choose it. [Matthew Stewart, Nature's God reviewed... Locke's radical idea (Cave&Light)]

And, we can blame him in large part for Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) startling esse est percipi thesis, since Berkeley drove through the hole Locke's representational realism had opened. Also today, John Campbell on Berkeley's Puzzle.

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson[Johnson's Boswell]

The conventional judgment of philosophers, in relating this funny little story, is that Johnson missed Berkeley's point. Mine is that Berkeley missed the point of Johnson's demonstration: nobody really lives exclusively in his own (figurative or literal, res cogitans or res extensa) head. Not even distracted bishops or philosophers.

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.
There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.

Well, the idea of him is now hung again anyway. If a portrait hangs in a gallery but nobody looks at it, does it make an impression? Its subject surely did, we always talk about him between Locke and Hume. Why is that? He was an empiricist only nominally, not temperamentally and (despite the extremity of his view) definitely not radicallyRadical Empiricists [wiki]who think like William James perceive the relations in experience that connect us and our sometimes-whacky ideas to the real "external" world.

Campbell (who, btw, speaks in the most charming Scots brogue) nonetheless describes Berkeley's puzzle and its solution as radical, tearing at the roots of everyday common sense. "If all I've got to go on is this wall of sensation, how can I even frame the idea of something beyond that?" His solution is no solution: "You can't, it's just an illusion... All we have are our ideas." That's a really bad idea, Bishop B.

Campbell himself makes more sense. There are "different levels in the description of reality," and everything we experience, from colors and smells and tastes (the so-called secondary qualities of experience) to quantum phenomena to observer-independent quantitative/"objective" features of the world, is "out there," i.e., real... but appropriately described in different terms. James again clarifies:
Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows.
That last bit is purely rhetorical, James didn't think heaven has a dog in this hunt. It's up to us to decide when to speak the language of common sense and when to defer to some corrective scientific or critical or other specialized vocabulary. Levels. And brains, "it's very important that we have brains. But their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk."

Russell again: 
There is therefore a justification for common sense in philosophy, but only as showing that our theoretical principles cannot be quite correct so long as their consequences are condemned by an appeal to common sense which we feel to be irresistible.

This In Our Time is all about Berkeley.

Calvin, btw, seems to have taken the Bishop seriously.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The atheists are coming

Sitting in the Nashville airport lounge last evening, awaiting the return from Florida  of my Spring Breaking family, the inescapable television presence of CNN suddenly grabbed my attention with something genuinely newsworthy: American Atheists uncloseted and partying in Tennessee, with a paid tv spot proclaiming next week's national convention right here in our backyard. It was surreal. Or maybe, finally, simply honest and real.

Road trip?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spinoza & art

Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of the passions).

Spinoza ("Spinozer," my old teacher from Brooklyn called him) believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:
Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance. 
You could say the very same of Spinoza.

In HAP 101 last year we tried to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we're not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.
In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.
I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.
I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. 
 Nothing in nature is by chance... Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.
The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature... I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids. 

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces" etc.) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we note  Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” Pascal's fright contrasts sharply with Spinoza's cosmic bliss. "What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition."

[Descartes to Deism... Tlumak on free will...Descartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)... Spinoza @dawn...Pantheism SEP... FAQs... He's back (Goldstein)... The Curse]

Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,... but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity. 

"Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you're passionate," subject to external influence, "you're in bondage and unfree." How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get "a better understanding of yourself and the world," and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word? Pantheism
In Spinoza's vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken... Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reasonPassion for Wisdom
And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his "intellectual love of God," which he said was "the highest felicity." God only knew why.

He's still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.
  1. "[True & blessedness does not consist in enjoying wellbeing not shared by others or in being more fortunate than others]." (TTP)
  2. "It is the of reason to conceive things under a form of eternity." (E5p29pr)
But, there are difficulties involved in trying to internalize a "Spinozism of freedom"...
Spinoza is led to a complete and undiluted pantheism. Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God's inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. This leads to difficulties... Bertrand Russell 
= = = = = = = = = = 

Also today: art. We'll try to discern the artfulness of Duchamp's Fountain, Dewey's ballplayer, maybe even Mapplethorpe's transgressive iconoclastic work. We'll introduce Wittgenstein's family resemblance, the Institutional Theory, and more.

And then we'll be done with Philosophy: The Basics.

Arthur Danto, premier aesthetician of his generation (and former MTSU Lyceum speaker), had interesting thoughts on what makes Andy Warhol's Brillo cartons and Marcel Duchamp's urinal (click, then scroll to the bottom to see his "Fountain") works of art. In a word: interpretation. Or in another word: philosophy. "Things which look the same are really different" is Danto's "whole philosophy of art in a nutshell." Thus spake  the "weightiest critic in the Manhattan art world"  of his generation. [The end of art]

I don’t claim to know what art is, or if Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain” should count. But like most of us, I know what I like: I like John Dewey’s approach in Art as Experience.
Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd.”

The crowd at the fountain had best be careful not to be infected by something less delightful.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Pascal & the mind

Somewhere in Walden Thoreau says something about needing a little water in his world, to provide a reflective glimpse of eternity. He also has things to say to today's headliner Pascal, about not being cowed by the scale of the cosmos. Pascal famously confessed: "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." (No wonder he was frightened, say J & M.) Henry said, in reply to neighbors who wondered if he wasn't lonely out there by the lake in the woods:"Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?" Unlike his French predecessor, our transcendentalist was at home in the universe.

Trivial pop-culture factoid: last night on "Madam Secretary," the husband (a teacher)mentioned Pascal.

Less trivially, Voltaire (we'll soon see him skewering Leibniz) intervened in the Pascal-Montaigne conflict. He called Pascal a "sublime misanthropist" whose vision of humanity as imprisoned and terrorized by the immensity and uncertainty of the cosmos was "fanatic."

Bertrand Russell mostly felt sorry for him, approvingly citing Nietzsche's critique of Pascal's "self-contempt and self-immolation." He meant Pascal's intellectual suicide, driven by fear.

Fortunately there’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], which we've already encountered in CoPhi.

Besides his mathematics and "Pascaline," his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts ("Pensees"-you can listen for free, here) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois. Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said
“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”
“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”
“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:
“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):
“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

Reminds me of what Montaigne said about needing to kickstart his mind with his legs.

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being "omne animal" sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal's platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God's grace, he writes, we are "like unto the brute beasts." He doesn't seem pleased about that, but I'm with Walt Whitman: "I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self contain'd... They do not sweat and whine about their condition... They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God..."]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:
So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?
I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.

And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind. 

Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy's long quest to represent "external reality" accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our "comic" efforts "to guarantee this and clarify that." 

Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister--corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.
My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that's what he'd call a duct tape question.

Rorty, with his metaphor of mind as (cloudy) mirror, is a good segue to the discussion of philosophy of mind, also on tap today.

Dualism gets us ghosts and spirits and other non-physical entities. Scary! But not for most students, I've found, so deeply have most of them drunk from the holy communion trough. It's not a question of evidence but of familiarity and fear, in many cases - fear of the alternative. A student expressed that just the other day, asking with incredulity and contempt how anyone could possibly ponder facing the end of mortal existence without an immortal safety net firmly in place (in mind).

Why do they think the evolution of mind so closely parallels that of the brain? They don't think about it, mostly.

Nor  do most think much about the possibility of mind and body being on parallel but never-converging tracks, pre-arranged to keep a synchronous schedule and never throw up a discordant discrepant "occasion." And forget too about epiphenomenalism (which Sam Harris seems to be trying hard to revive).

If neuroscientists ever succeed in mapping the brain (TED) and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? [John Searle's view...] Is there a gap between the explanation and the experience of pain, pleasure, happiness, etc.? I say no and yes, respectively. But let's try and draw that map, it may take us to interesting places none of us have thought about.