Delight Springs

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Today in CoPhi we pause to consider eastern perspectives, before proceeding in the balance of the semester to occupy ourselves mainly with Nigel Warburton's western orientation. The differences are stark, particularly with respect to the dualistic thinking that has so dominated this quadrant and led so many of our predecessors to defend notions like soul-survival and personal immortality. As the late Robert Solomon noted, the eastern (specifically Taoist) soul is more like a drop of water in a stream than like an eternal life-preserver or an "intact bit of eternity in each of us."

In Atheism we conclude Julian Baggini's quick overview. Does he give short shrift to the role of "inner conviction" in establishing personal belief? Isn't subjectivity or temperament an inevitable factor in philosophy (as James said), even though western philosophy's official view is that it should not be? Or is inner conviction just a mirror of external, local contingencies of birth that we're not obliged to honor, defer to, or even respect?

Baggini says "atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us... [this is] the precondition for meaningful adult lives." That's sharply-stated, an echo of Carl Sagan's milder (but no less portentous) Pale Blue Dot proclamation of "no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

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

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

5:45/7:04, 29/57

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


We had an animated discussion in CoPhi-6 yesterday about these strange days, in our public discourse, and their echo of the 1950s. Some of us agreed, people didn't listen respectfully to one another then and they're not listening now. It's easier, and a lot more entertaining, to just attack and villify anyone whose views or practices differ from ours, to allege their disloyalty and threat to the nation, and congratulate ourselves for not being them.

Maybe it's too soon to draw that parallel. No votes have yet been cast, and even so the victors in Iowa and New Hampshire frequently stall out well before spring and summer. We may still wake from the unpleasantness of Trump & Co., if we can remember that while politics can be the most entertaining show on the dial its purpose is much more serious. The people we privilege with the responsibility of leadership must exemplify the highest qualities of respectful dialogue, not the lowest form of pandering to fear and xenophobia.

I'm encouraged by what I heard in class to think that enough of us know that, and might yet shake off the apathy and distraction of entertainment politics long enough to register our disapproval of people and politicians who don't listen. They're as marginal and silly and unreal, albeit entertaining, as the flat-earthers.

6:00/6:54, 32/42/26

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

More life

The bright white world has quickly faded back to wet and gray. That's the way of things, around these parts.

And we're back in class, as the weekend's eight inches of wintry blast - a blizzard, by local standards - has suddenly thawed into a big sloppy muddy slushy mess, and reminded us that change is constant.

In CoPhi today, peripatetics old and new; and, how This I Believe models one of the most important skills for the collaborative approach we follow in my classes: willingness to listen to disparate public professions of personal conviction, with sympathy and a critical ear, but without meanness and rancor. It's a skill sadly missing from most public and political dialogue.

In Atheism & Philosophy, we look (with Julian Baggini) at godless ethics and meaning. The main takeaway: being good is a challenge for us all, with or without a heavenly host and role-model; and so is the quest for significance. You can't simply assign goodness or meaning to an external law-and-purpose-Giver and be done with it, we must each appropriate and perpetually re-appropriate the point and integrity of our lives. That goes for gods and humans alike, who must (Euthyphro should have learned from Socrates) all acknowledge the reasonableness of independent standards.

William James: "The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man's or woman 's pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place."

And finally today in Bioethics, we note the uses and limitations of theory. Is there, for instance, a theoretical solution to the question of how long a good and meaningful life must be? Baggini votes for longer lives than we've yet averaged, but not eternally more. I agree. More life, please. As Younger Daughter used to say, "I like too much!"

But enough will eventually be enough... and there will be new life in the Spring.

5:50/6:54, 50/26

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gather the light

They've closed school today, after yesterday's reopening, due to the threat of a wintry mix that's raining pellets this morning. I'm glad we got Opening Day in, it always lifts my spirit to encounter so many eager new learners (and a few older ones) on Day One. 

It was a cold and bracing start. My spread-out schedule had me shuttling back and forth across campus all day long: over 18,000 steps, says my phone Pacer. As a peripatetic I'm of course not complaining. 

On one of my transits I was pleased to be hailed by one of my old students, whose fraternity was giving away hot (well, warm) chocolate. The general mood on campus, if I detected it aright, was upbeat and hopeful. 

We're exactly one year out from our next Inauguration Day. Will it be upbeat and hopeful? 

In 1969 at his Inauguration, a hopeful Richard Nixon read these florid words: “We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.” He went on to gather more than light, and less than a full second term, as his paranoid administration compiled Enemies Lists and burgled the DNC at Watergate. 

But anyway, what a great proposal. It's why I wore my canary-yellow necktie yesterday, to gather the light and reflect it as best I could. That's also what college is for.
5:50/6:57, 28/38

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What is college for?

Isn't that a good question to ask, on the first day of the Spring semester? And to keep on asking, alongside "What is philosophy for?" It deserves more than the ritual lip-service we tend to give it at term's beginning, before settling into autopilot.

A college course ought to be an adventure, not just another hurdle on the way to a life of rote, routine, and repetition. One of our goals, in my classes - two CoPhilosophy (Intro) classes this semester, Atheism, & Bioethics, all on Tuesday/Thursday - is to arrive at the last day of class with a sense of having only begun an exciting lifelong journey, not wanting it to end. Older Daughter says she had a class like that last semester, and it was exceptional. It ought to be the rule.

One theme I'm going to push in all my classes this time is summed up in a statement of Spinoza's. “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” That's marvelous, and though it didn't prevent his own scorn and excommunication it suggests the wisdom of a John Rawls-ian kind of veil. We should always approach our studies as though we didn't already know what we think we know. We should seek to understand not just the position we've defended in the past, but also the positions we'll end up rejecting in the future.

That's not easy, particularly where passions run deep. Atheism, for instance. I won't ask anyone to suffer total amnesia as to their previous conclusions about the (non-) existence of god(s), but I willl ask them to pursue Spinozistic understanding of others' conclusions in a Rawlsian spirit of fairness.

I'll also ask them to adopt a suitable humility, if not quite Socratic then at least Einsteinian and Saganesque:  “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike -- and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

We should always be willing to listen to those who are willing to listen to us. That's the simple condition of collaborative co-philosophizing.

Image result for bat and ball

I tend to treat Opening Day of the academic season much as I treat its April counterpart in baseball, as a lighthearted and festive occasion to wax just a bit silly on a subject I care deeply and seriously about. But setting aside Douglas Adams' philosophical whale and Monty Python's Argument Clinic for a moment,  I want to think a bit this morning about that question. It's the title of chapter five of William Deresiewicz's controversial book Excellent Sheep, and it's really the main subject of that book (which generated most of its heat with a critique of elite education, but whose message applies to us public land-grant educators and our students as well). Some of its more trenchant observations:
“College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is "not the real world." But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.”
“Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this? What they hear is a constant drumbeat, in the public discourse, that seeks to march them in the opposite direction. When policy makers talk about higher education, from the president all the way down, they talk exclusively in terms of math and science. Journalists and pundits—some of whom were humanities majors and none of whom are nurses or engineers—never tire of lecturing the young about the necessity of thinking prudently when choosing a course of study, the naïveté of wanting to learn things just because you’re curious about them.” 
“You’re told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you are being self-indulgent if you actually want to get an education. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not okay to study history, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is okay to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it isn’t selfish at all.” 
“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.” 
“In 1971, 73 percent of incoming freshmen said that it is essential or very important to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” 37 percent to be “very well-off financially” (not well-off, note, but very well-off). By 2011, the numbers were almost reversed, 47 percent and 80 percent, respectively. For well over thirty years, we’ve been loudly announcing that happiness is money, with a side order of fame. No wonder students have come to believe that college is all about getting a job.” 
"The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity. If that's what people had you do, then you were robbed. And if you find yourself to be the same person at the end of college as you were at the beginning - the same beliefs, the same values, the same desires, the same goals for the same reasons - then you did it wrong. Go back and do it again.”  
Every teacher and student, not just the ivies, should read Excellent Sheep, and then its sequel "How College Sold Its Soul to the Market":
As college is increasingly understood in terms of jobs and careers, and jobs and careers increasingly mean business, especially entrepreneurship, students have developed a parallel curriculum for themselves, a parallel college, where they can get the skills they think they really need. Those extracurriculars that students are deserting the classroom for are less and less what Pinker derides as “recreational” and more and more oriented toward future employment: entrepreneurial endeavors, nonprofit ventures, volunteerism. The big thing now on campuses — or rather, off them — is internships.
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.
Too bleak for Opening Day? (And the anniversary of Vesuvius, and the baptismal day of Mr. Keating's favorite poet? WA) Maybe it's not too late for some of us to retain or regain our souls, to gather some rosebuds and make much of our brief time together before the volcano blows. Hope springs eternal, in the beginning.
5:30/6:14, 71/81 5:50/6:58/4:58, 14/30

Friday, January 15, 2016

Glimmer Glimmer

What if it were true, that only the present is real? An eternal now, forever?

But, what would "forever" mean then, if not past-present-future in a rolling wave that never ends? Never so far, that is, never so far as we can grasp. How about it, William Blake? How do you hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour?

We're not so innocent after all, we're always dragging the past and foreseeing (usually falsely) the future, or versions of past and future. We're experienced, and that means we're receptive to more. Not saying that's necessarily a good thing, but in our universe it's real. We'd better accept it.

We're definitely in the poetic realm here. William James wrote those pioneering chapters on the subject in his pioneering Principles, reaching immediately for the image of a glow worm whose light is here and gone, here and gone, here and gone again, without continuity and hence without temporality.

It's a beautiful image but also dreadful, given our constitutional-evolutionary adaptation to a world of flowing continuity. Fortunately it's "fanciful," our figurative bioluminescence sheds light on time,
our consciousness never shrinks to the dimensions of a glow-worm spark. The knowledge of some other part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing.
The past-present-future wave is no more composed of nonexistent nonentities than is the ocean. Picture our little glow worm surfing a wave, recalling the last crest, anticipating the next. He doesn't dare forget he's part of something rolling and flowing and continuing, and he's delighted, forever and always, to catch a wave. It glimmers, so does he, so should we in the knowledge of our intrinsic relatedness to the span of history and becoming.

5:50/6:59, 48/53/30

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Just showing up

Still fumbling for the key to unlock what I want to say, in a critically constructive spirit, about John Lachs, perceptual immediacy, the urgency of "now" in contrast with the relative remoteness of past and future, the importance of balancing present enjoyment with past experience and future possibility, the pan-reality of the whole temporal gamut...

Time, said Henry Thoreau, is but the stream I go fishing in. I prefer the metaphor, also well-suited to Henry's lifestyle, of time as a trail to walk: you can focus on the point of departure or arrival whenever you like, or any other arbitrary slice of the journey; but if you want to keep your balance and remain upright on two legs you must attend to each step in turn. The attention paid, one you've establish a steady rhythm of motion, may be subliminal and shared with multiple other tasks of thought and affect - much like breathing. But attention must be paid.

Will that help me locate my elusive key?

E.B. White said he woke up each day torn between an impulse to enjoy the world and a counter-impulse to save it, making it hard to plan his day. That seems relevant to the question of time and how we experience it. The whole day is real, as is a whole walk or a whole fishing expedition. But you have to take each step in turn, and each quickly dissolves into the next. The speciousness of the present, as James wrote of it in his Principles of Psychology, doesn't invalidate it, or its predecessors, or its successors.

 The new Adam Gopnik essay on Henry James helps.
Thinking about their childhood makes Henry happy, and also reminds him of why he became a writer. Where William was compelled—by his father and by being firstborn, but far more by the force of his character and his mind—to learn and ascend and accumulate, young Henry is content to observe and register and experience. The idea of the writer as someone content just to see and hear, to wrap himself right around a moment of being, feels serene rather than defensive. “My stronger rule, however, I confess, and the one by which I must here consistently be guided, is that, from the moment it is a question of projecting a picture, no particle that counts for memory or is appreciable to the spirit can be too tiny, and that experience, in the name of which one speaks, is all compact of them and shining with them.”
...Henry’s theory of experience as the thing in itself was closer to his brother’s psychology than either quite knew. William’s take on religious ecstasy, related in his great “Varieties of Religious Experience”—basically, that if you think you’re in the presence of the divine, you are—is very much like Henry’s take on all experience. If looking at a little gathering of blue uniforms in camp gives you a strong sense of the Union Army and its morale and its “vibrations,” then you have gained all these things. If you think that what you’re seeing is everything there is to see, then you have seen it all. William’s version feels energetic, and Henry’s feels elegiac, but they share the same basic American belief: in the absence of God, you can get all the ecstasy and transcendence and numinosity you need just by showing up.
Just showing up for each step and each moment will take you as far down the trail as you can go, and though Lachs is right to say we cannot know how life might be different in a hundred years, he's also right to say we must embrace myriad possibilities. Surely that means we have to think about alternative possible futures and how our present may prepare or ruin them. And that makes it wrong to say that what exists now is the only reality. Doesn't it?

5:45/6:59, 39/59

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


The 44th American president's final state of the union address, already? The future once again is now, time keeps on slipping into it, there's no denying it.

And that's what he talked about, coming full circle: a hopeful and changing future we can believe in, including a cancer moonshot, and in the meantime a recognition that things aren't half as bad as the deniers and "cynics" say.
Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.
We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon. (APPLAUSE)
Now, that spirit of discovery is in our DNA. America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better future.
He's right. We need lots of moonshots, of all kinds, to own the future and invigorate the present. We need to leave the despairing/disparaging pessimists in the past, where they can be safely visited and studied and learned from. Sour Schopenhauers have their instructive uses, and so even have terrible Trumps and brutal Cruzes.

6 am/7, 20/44

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

History of the future

What a nice poem this morning, "For My Daughter in Reply to a Question," though we infer that it must have been a troubled question. The poet reassures his presumably quite youthful and disturbed inquisitor that life is good and long, that "your children will be my grandchildren," that we each offer unique gifts ("There’ll never be another as you and never another as I"), that all is not vanity ("We will not be forgotten and passed over and buried under the births and deaths to come"). That last stanza, dubious as it is, expresses something a young person needs to hear: the procession of lives in the midst of which we wake to find ourselves is no mere death march, it's the walk of life.

Another side of the story, which an older person needs to hear, is told by Susan Jacoby in Never Say Die, wherein she challenges our culture's infatuation with endless youth in a "new old age."

And James Howard Kunstler is also onto something important, in his History of the Future. We must recognize the continuity between our own brief lives and our species' distant prospect, lest through inaction and inattention we irreparably compromise the life-conditions of both. The idea that only "now, always" matters is irresponsible and self-defeating.

5:40/7:00, 36/43/19

Monday, January 11, 2016

Integrity, stability, beauty, harmony, ch-changes

“Oh look out now you rock and rollers / Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.” And so another legendary mortal falls to earth to join the innumerable caravan, just two days after a birthday and the release of a new recording. Pleasant dreams, David Bowie. The living will continue to appreciate and celebrate your creative genius.

Speaking of... William James was born on this date in 1842. A pluralistic universe, he also knew, constantly changes.

The pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold knew that too, and every friend of the eartth knows he wrote “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Not everyone knows he also said “harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.”

Lest I be accused of forgetting, and sowing seeds of domestic disharmony: happy birthday to my wife. Life goes on.

5:30/7:00, 14/40

William James, born on this day in 1842, on how to be extraordinary

Critchley in The Stone: Bowie belongs to a utopian tradition that longs for a “yes” within the cramped petty relentless “no” of Englishness.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Black holes & cosmic enjoyment

Stephen Hawking, born on Galileo's 300th birthday, is 74 today.  He says “we should never stop trying to tell these extraordinary stories from science,” one of which concerns the “information paradox” of what happens to information that is absorbed by black holes.

He's not speaking metaphorically, or not intending to. He means of course the collapsed and dying stars that suck up all the adjoining light. But in this age of information overload it's hard to hear that question without extending it to include everything we're exposed to, constantly, but fail to retain. There seems to be more and more of it all the time. It would be nice to believe it's still out there somewhere, creating worlds.

Meanwhile, in the ambit of our middling star that's not dead yet, I'm seeking a hook to snag in the textual information of John Lachs's Stoic Pragmatism. Lachs is among the most generous and sensible scholars I've known, kind, endlessly giving, humane. I'm hard-pressed to identify points of fundamental difference.

But, because Lachs writes with panache and daring, in the spirit of William James's admonition that we ought never take ourselves so seriously as to fear committing an error or two - "Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things" - his texts always offer useful provocation and inspired instigation.

And so, in this region of space-time where our errors also shed informing light, I will attempt to proceed with the same lightness of heart that's always been Lachs's healthy example. Excessive nervousness in this enterprise would be misplaced.

The Lachs texts currently provoking me include a statement to the effect that the distant future of life is of no relevance to our lives, in the present. "Our goals must not be cosmic," though our perspective should be, but we must not "waste our energy wondering what might happen a million years from now."

What would Stephen Hawking say about that? Does he agree with Alvy Singer's (Woody Allen's) Dr. Flicker, that the universe "won't be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we've gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we're here"? I do. But I also think the remote future is profoundly relevant. In trying to say why, perhaps light will be shed. Or errors will be committed. Or, most likely, both. I'll enjoy it.

5:50/7:00, 48/59

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Slow down

Older Daughter and I decided to lunch at our favorite Indian buffet yesterday, and in eager but heedless anticipation I drove just a little too fast to get there. "42 in a 30, sir," the friendly Paul Blart-ish cycle cop wearily observed, before asking why he shouldn't give me a ticket. With nothing better to plead than the "Good Guy" defense, I acknowledged my inexcusable inadvertence and promised not to repeat it, and he actually relented - no ticket this time!

So he turned out to be the good guy. My co-pilot said later I should have begged for mercy on the grounds that she'd just received a speeding ticket last month near Metropolis IL, going a lot faster than her dad, so our family'd already met its seasonal quota of vehicular incident. Ha ha.

The serious takeaway is that we both need to watch our respective dashes, and remember that no destination - not even Woodlands - is worth the risk of inattention. The best things will keep. Slow anticipation makes the hakka noodles even more savory.

5:55/7:00, 29/55

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Stories to tell

And here we are, deep into 2016 already. Tree and lights came down yesterday, Younger Daughter goes back to school today. Time to shake off that holiday torpor and get back in harness.  But, no regrets for all the elective reading (The Invention of Nature, Battling the Gods, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich...) and mind-wandering of the break, that's how the batteries recharge.

The tasks at hand, before Spring semester commences on the 19th: rework the syllabi for CoPhi, Bioethics, and Atheism; and, find an angle from which to constructively critique my esteemed mentor John Lachs (I've been invited to submit an essay for the festschrift being assembled in his honor, an outgrowth of last August's Berlin conference).

But the immediate task is to reclaim one of my better dawn habits, a daily check-in with Mr. Keillor's Almanac. Today we learn it's the birthday of E.L. Doctorow (1931), who said:
“Writing's like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights illuminate, but you can make the whole trip that way, you see.”
And: “When you’re writing a book, you don’t really think about it critically. You don’t want to know too well what you’re doing. First, you write the book, then you find the justification for it. The book is constructed as a conversation, with someone doing most of the talking and someone doing most of the listening.”
Interesting, the thought of writing as a lopsided conversation. But isn't the one talking also the one listening, in the process of drafting?

It's Barry Lopez's birthday too (1945). “I’m not a person that draws a very sharp line between nature and something else. I think that there is this thing nature of which we are a part. I believe our culture is infused with nature in the same way I imagine nature is infused with culture.” And, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”

One of the stories I always tell is that, because we and our storied culture are "infused" with nature, we must not think ourselves adrift in a meaningless cosmos. We must "remember that we're standing on a planet that's evolving, and revolving at 900 miles an hour" (or so). Or, Eric meant, rotating at about that, and orbitally revolving at 19 miles a second. It means a lot.

So, lotsa meaningful stories still to tell, if we can just hold it together a little longer.

5:50/7:00/4:45, 27/47