Delight Springs

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal

"I hate IB," says Younger Daughter as she slaves over her art project at 5 am. What she really hates is having to deal with the fallout from chronic procrastination. As old Seneca said, we have plenty of time. We waste it. The International Baccalaureate program is about developing the "intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world" - and it's about learning not to procrastinate.

On the other hand, we tend also to love, with the late Douglas Adams, that lovely whooshing noise deadlines make. I spent most of yesterday anticipating the whoosh, with my Baseball in Literature and Culture conference presentation in Kansas bearing down. It's nominally about Vin Scully, but ultimately about gratitutde and finding meaning in a secular world. I'll mention All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly, and their claim that "the most important things, the most real things..well up and take us over, hold us for a while, and then, finally, let us go." They whoosh. 

And on the other other hand: it was supposed to be her Spring Break last week. I sympathize.

Three Frenchmen today, in CoPhi (after we wrap up all remaining group reports): Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal - a humanist skeptic, a rationalist/foundationalist, and a fideist gambler, respectively. The first and last were known for slogans in their native tongue: "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?") and "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaĆ®t point." ("The heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all.")

Descartes, of course, preferred his previously noted Latin cogito declaration. I can't help repeating Kundera's quip: that's the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothache. I've never been more certain of anything in my life, than of the body's various aches and pains. I'm more certain of them every day. Fortunately, solvitur ambulando is still my working slogan.

Descartes wanted only good apples in his sack, by Nigel's analogy. He was prepared to waste a lot of perfectly acceptable beliefs, in order to avoid potential errors. Unlike James he thought our errors are awfully solemn things, not necessary and instructive steps along the way of life and learning. He rejected what Pyrrho and Montaigne both  accepted, the inevitability of uncertainty. As Sarah Bakewell says of Montaigne, “Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it." Pascal also hated not knowing, but decided the best route ultimately was not the Rationalist Road.

Might we be dreaming? Doubting Descartes, early in his Meditations, says what do you mean we? Ultimately he decides we're all here, at least as awake as Gilbert Ryle's ghost can be. If we can trust our clear and distinct perceptions we can rule out the evil demon hypothesis, and stop worrying that we might be brains in vats, or humans in matrix-like pods, or something.

Descartes' "most practical critic" was the American C.S. Peirce, who said we shouldn't pretend to doubt in philosophy what we don't question in life. One of Descartes's surprising contemporary admirers is A.C. Grayling. He thinks Descartes was wrong about consciousness and the mind-body problem, but wrong in wholly constructive ways that have benefited subsequent philosophy.

Montaigne, Bakewell points out, answered his own question about "How to live" with hard-won but much-treasured lesson that Epicurus was right, death per se is not one of our experiences. He learned that from his own "near death experience," which he says taught him that nature drips a comforting anaesthetic into our veins when we need it most. “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

But, "as Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out.”

Many readers through the past half-millennium have been struck by the contemporaneity of Montaigne's mind, his capacity for "living on through readers' inner worlds over long periods of history" and speaking to them like a friend and neighbor despite the distance of centuries and the differences of culture. He achieved that authorly immortality so many have aspired to, but so few actually attained.

He achieved, in his own terms, freedom. “Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate; be master of your own life. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”

"Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in his Essays his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition." SEP

And, as we've already apreciated about him, Montaigne was a peripatetic who said his mind wouln't budge without a big assist from his legs.

Pascal's best thoughts (and worst) are in his best-known book, Pensees.  His best invention was a rudimentary calculator called the Pascaline. His most noted argument was for a wager that asked "what have you got to lose" by believing? That depends on how you think about the integrity of belief, and on how much you value your Sundays. I'm betting there's both more in heaven and earth (if you invert the terms) than Pascal dreamed.

Pascal said: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.” (But, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”)   And “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.” (That's what Mark Twain, and really all the wittiest wits, said too.) And “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” (But Nigel says he said he wasn't one.)

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” But, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That's why Descartes took the Rationalist Road. Pascal sticks to Faith Street: “It is man's natural sickness to believe that he possesses the truth.”
So, how do you know you're awake and not dreaming? Is it meaningful to say "life is but a dream"? Does "Inception" make any sense at all? Are you essentially identical with or distinct from your body (which includes your brain)? If distinct, who/what/where are you? How do you know? Can you prove it? Is there anything you know or believe that you could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? If so, what? How do you know it? If not, is that a problem for you?

Do you believe in immaterial spirits? Are you one, or hoping to be? Can you explain how it is possible for your (or anyone's) material senses to perceive them?

At what age do you hope to retire? What will you do with yourself then? Will you plan to spend more time, like Montaigne, thinking and writing?

Have you had a near-death experience, or known someone who did? What did it teach you/them? How often does the thought occur to you that you're always one misstep (or fall, or driving mistake) away from death?

What have you learned, so far, about "how to live"? Have you formulated any life-lessons based on personal experience, inscribed any slogans, written down any "rules"?

Do you agree that, contrary to Pascal, most nonreligious people would consider it a huge sacrifice to devote their lives to religion? Why? Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?
==
Happy birthday Cy Young, Sam Walton, & Lady Gaga. On This Day

At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry begins when a pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island fails to close. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, and the core began to dangerously overheat. This Day

Aikin & Talisse on swamping and spitballing (YouT)

Priority registration begins Monday. The Philosophy of Happiness (PHIL 3160) returns, Fall 2017 - TTh 2:40, JUB 202. One more thought from Pascal: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

5:30/6:40, 58/70/50, 7:03

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Renaissance

We conclude Gottlieb's Dream of Reason today  in CoPhi, with the Renaissance. Scholastic hairsplitting was down, classical antiquity was up, scientific reason was heating up, the Enlightenment was on deck. Rene Descartes waits in the wings with his cogito, ergo sum.

But, why cogito? Why not spiro (I breathe...)? Indeed, as Milan Kundera suggests, why not rideo? (I ache...) "'I think, therefore I am,' is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches." Descartes' reply, that his thinking is of the essence because it is indubitable, is dubious. But we'll get to that, let's not put Descartes before the horse.
The Renaissance was not a period of great achievement in philosophy, but it did certain things which were essential preliminaries to the greatness of the seventeenth century. In the first place, it broke down the rigid scholastic system, which had become an intellectual strait jacket. It revived the study of Plato, and thereby demanded at least so much independent thought as was required for choosing between him and Aristotle. In regard to both, it promoted a genuine and first-hand knowledge, free from the glosses of Neoplatonists and Arabic commentators. More important still, it encouraged the habit of regarding intellectual activity as a delightful social adventure, not a cloistered meditation aiming at the preservation of a predetermined orthodoxy... The attitude of Renaissance scholars to the Church is difficult to characterize simply. Some were avowed free-thinkers, though even these usually received extreme unction, making peace with the Church when they felt death approaching. Most of them were impressed by the wickedness of contemporary popes, but were nevertheless glad to be employed by them.  Russell
The new Renaissance humanist movement placed more stock in the quality and clarity of writing, than the logical contortions and convolutions of theological apologetics. It laid new emphasis on the philosophical subdisciplines of ethics and political philosophy, with the likes of Machiavelli and his "manly" prince, and Hobbes' nightmare state of nature, both offering bleak "realistic"/materialistic assessments of human nature. Most modern-day humanists have a much sunnier outlook.
IHEU Happy Human
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.” 
Some are even Brights, espousing a "naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural or mystical elements."

The Dutch humanist Erasmus "made scholasticism seem absurd and petty," or maybe he just made it reveal its pettiness and absurdity. (Did you see what Senator Franken said about absurdity, btw?) French comic parodist Rabelais knew absurdity when he saw it, too. 

Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate polymathic Renaissance Man, said scholars should study the world directly and not spin their wheels recycling old untested ideas and musty books. "Go direct to the works of nature." He really thought “the knowledge of all things is possible,” “the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding,” and "learning never exhausts the mind."  He bought Ockam's razor. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." He was a pre-pragmatist. “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” And, "people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Maybe that's where Dr. Seuss got "If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along and you'll start happening too."

The Florentine explorer Vespucci betrayed more than a bit of old world prejudice when he said the New Worlders were more Epicurean than Stoic, more hedonistic than dutiful.

Francis Bacon, often extolled as a "prophet of modern science," nonetheless wanted to "build on astrology, alchemy, and magic" because (as we're always told he said, but almost never told why) "knowledge is power." Neil Tyson's favorite scientist Newton was also, oddly, an occultist and alchemist. But by his time was that was no longer considered normal science, so he downplayed it. The science-magic continuum would continue to dissipate, even though Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Indistinguishable by scientific illiterates, he meant. Magical thinking is entertaining at Hogwart's, but the sooner we dispel the demon-haunted world of irrational fear and superstition the better.

Still, the continuum was in place long enough for Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all to be impressed by Platonism and sun-worship. "The sun can signify God himself to you," said Platonist Ficino. We are all star-stuff, and owe our lives to our nearest star. But it's a mark of scientific rationality to be struck and even moved by such relationships (see the Sagan quote from last time, about the intrinsic spirituality of science) without bowing down in worshipful submission.

What a "remarkable development" was Gutenberg's printing press, giving rise to "a deluge of books" and mass literacy. Too bad so many of us these days don't take advantage of it. As Mark Twain said, there's no practical difference between one who can't read and one who won't. Or, one who won't write or read more than 140 characters at a time. Looking at you, Mr. President. "There is not much thinking going on. He hears things that please him and repeats them, like a magpie making a nest."

Montaigne was an underrated Renaissance figure, father of the essay, moderate skeptic ("Que sais-je?"), and anti-Descartes. More on him soon. His cousin Sanchez first named what we call "scientific method" and said it could support only "limited claims about the appearances." Limited, but also correctable and growing.

Martin Luther's protestant reformation partook of just enough Renaissance spirit to refuse to accept papal and ecclesiastic infallibility. He was not without his own dogmatic streak, however. "A good Christian should look to the Scriptures, interpreted in the light of his conscience and his own religious experience, in order to find out what to believe." But shouldn't he also listen to others, and learn from their experience too? If “reason is the devil’s whore,” we're in big trouble. 

The French mathematician Gassendi "revamped Epicurus' picture of the universe" to make it more Bible-friendly, saying atoms swirl in the physical realm but their laws don't apply in the spiritual world. Christian atomism was convenient, at least. But is it tenable? Mustn't a scientific naturalist refrain from such speculation, and stick to his atoms?

Metaphors are important. Descartes proposed to support the new scientific worldview of Galileo with a building construction metaphor, that of firm foundations. Raze the edifice of belief to the ground, build it up again with bricks of indubitable certainty. But can we get enough of those to make the metaphor stand?

Some questions: Is there a sharp difference between writing well and thinking logically? Why do you think so many scholastic/medieval philosophers were poor writers? How can you become a better writer and clearer thinker? Was Machiavelli right, about how power works in the real world? If European explorers like Vespucci understood that European knowledge was at best incomplete, at worst just wrong, why were so many of them still so confident that the natives they encountered in the New World were sub-human? Why in general are humans still so quick to denigrate those who are different, or who have different customs?
Is there any proper place for astrology and magic in the modern world? It's been estimated that the average social media user could read 200 books in the time they spend online. What would they gain? What would they lose? What's the right balance? Do you trust your own conscience and experience more than that of religious leaders like the Pope? Does knowledge need foundations? Can you agree with Machiavelli about leadership without being a sexist or an autocrat? Are people fundamentally selfish, in your experience? Are you? Can people change?
==
Peripatetic news update. 10K steps may not be enough for optimal health. “It takes effort, but we can accumulate 15,000 steps a day by walking briskly for two hours at about a four-mile-per-hour pace... This can be done in bits, perhaps with a 30-minute walk before work, another at lunch, and multiple 10-minute bouts throughout the day. Our metabolism is not well-suited to sitting down all the time.”
==
It was on this day in 2010 that President Barack Obama (books by this author) signed into law the Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping piece of federal legislation since Medicare was passed in 1965. Universal health care had long been a dream of the Democratic Party. The passage of the bill extended health care to almost 32 million Americans.

And today marks the first day in 1942 when the U.S. government began moving Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes to internment camps. Between 110,000 and 120,000 people were forcibly relocated. Some Japanese-American men were drafted into the War even as their families remained incarcerated. The camps remained open until 1945. WA

5:30/6:47, 40/71, 6:59

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Middle Ages

What a summery first day of Spring that was!

Back from the philosophy conference in Birmingham, in Vulcan's shadow, where I was pleased to meet John Kaag and thank him for his American Philosophy: A Love Story. He's a peripatetic too, noting that "walking gives one many things," especially time and attention. “Looking back," he writes, "I had the realization that at one point in the not-so-distant past, philosophy wasn’t the sort of thing that was discussed only at formal conferences and in arcane journals. It was exchanged over dinner, between families. It was the stuff of everyday life." And, “The love of wisdom was not bound in academic journals that no one read; it rather permeated all aspects of human existence.”

And most pointedly: "The point of American philosophy isn't to be 'right'... is not to have a specific rock-solid point, but rather to outline a problem, explore its context, get a sense of the whole experiential situation..." Always good to remember, at a conference. SAAP conferees tend to remember it better than some others.

Then, I contributed my small bit to the William James Society's panel discussion of immortality "re-envisioned"and "Existential Pluralism" and reaffirmed our continuing commitment as public philosophers to the ongoing project of constructively melding and applying American philosophy's traditional elements - pragmatism, pluralism, radical empiricism, and especially meliorism. Some of my friends find it very difficult to do that, on paper. In practice, and in the spirit of James, I don't see how we can possibly fail to try.

I'm with him: "I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world's forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not?" Only time and experience will finally tell. In the meantime, we must remember: "The inner significance of other lives exceeds all our powers of sympathy and insight. If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives."  Let us not let "blindness lay down the law to sight." And let us not stamp out possibilities, prematurely.

The most compelling and most vulnerable possibility these days, surely, is the very continuation of lives worth living. The really vital question persists: what is life going to make of itself, on this earth of things? That's the existential question. As Billy Collins says in today's poem ("The Order of the Day"), you never really know.

In late antiquity and the middle ages the big questions tended to be more about life's rumored sequel and how to achieve it. Augustine first thought you had to make alliance with the forces of good, in their death struggle with the forces of darkness. He was on the right track, I tend to think, before his big conversion. He was right to suppose that our side needs all good hands on deck, to resist and overcome evil. He put that conversion off as long as he could, praying for purity but only in due course. For the record, though: I don't think he was right to think of our carnal condition as an entombment. Incorporeal souls sow no wild oats, ascetics enjoy few existential delights.

So, buoyed by Platonism, he "put all forms of materialism firmly behind him" and "turned back the clock of intellectual history." The old Greek commitment to reason was not finally comforting enough to him. "He returned to a version of the comforting supernatural stories which most of the first philosophers sought to dispense with, or at least to rationalize."

Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy dialogue found its own form of comfort, not in Augustine's Christianity but in Lady Philosophy's timeless stoicism. God (or Good?) sees all in a single atemporal sweep, "at a go," and thus somehow leaves the hapless victim of tortured persecution and execution as free as it found him. He can still choose to be "philosophical" about every misfortune, even to his dying breath on the rack. His freedom's a lot like Kris Kristofferson's and Janis Joplin's, "just another word for nothing left to lose."

Anselm's God, "than which nothing greater can be conceived," and his famous "proof" thereof, is another of those notorious sleights of hand made to do heavy philosophical lifting with nothing more muscular than verbiage. It's still shocking to me, how many bright people (including young Russell, briefly) it's seduced. 

Speaking of great misfortune, poor Abelard's is painful to ponder. Gottlieb blames "his scholarly prowess and his passionate involvement with logic" for emboldening him to undertake his own fateful seduction. How ironic, that he would go on to make his mark as "the first serious moral philosopher of medieval times" and "to apply rational analysis to the nature of moral goodness." Too little, too late.

Moses Maimonides did not address Abelard's peculiar form of perplexity but did try to bring philosophy, science, and religion together. “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” But try telling that to the world. He was right, though. “You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” But, Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”

He was onto confirmation bias early. “We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it. [...] The same is the case with those opinions of man to which he has been accustomed from his youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views.”

Was he really the first to say this?: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Did he anticipate James's Will to Believe notion that "our errors are not such awfully solemn things"? “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

He was sort of a bioethicist before his time: The physician should not treat the disease but the patient who is suffering from it.” And, “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.” Actually that might have helped Abelard, with a little timely saltpeter in his diet.

William of Ockham's famous "razor" said we should keep our theories simple, our ontology thin. "It is pointless to do with more what can be done with less." Remember Goober's beard?

Remember Buridan's Ass? Apparently "no such animal appears in his writings." Too bad, he's been such a workhorse for logicians.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic friar, but he also had a vivd scifi imagination. He said there must be other worlds and "countless suns" out there in the Void, "innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow." We've only confirmed that in the past twenty years or so. It (and other heresies) got him torched in 1600. Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson tell his story.

Finally today, Aquinas. His First Cause Argument, echoing Aristotle, said a never-ending series of causes and effects would lead to an unacceptable regress. The first term in any explanatory sequence, he thought, has to be self-evident. But is that itself self-evident? Russell says, of "the supposed impossibility of a series having no first term: Every mathematician knows that there is no such impossibility; the series of negative integers ending with minus one is an instance to the contrary. But here again no Catholic is likely to abandon belief in God even if he becomes convinced that Saint Thomas's arguments are bad; he will invent other arguments, or take refuge in revelation." It's not just Catholics. Remember confirmation bias?

More questions: Can the definition of a word prove anything about the world? Is theoretical simplicity always better, even if the universe is complex? Does the possibility of other worlds somehow diminish humanity? Which is more plausible, that God exists but is not more powerful than Satan, or that neither God nor Satan exists? Why? Are supernatural stories of faith, redemption, and salvation comforting to you than the power of reason and evidence? And what do you say to Carl Sagan?:
“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” 
==
Happy birthday J.S. Bach, who said “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.” That's not what Dan Dennett says in From Bacteria to Bach and Back. “You shouldn’t trust your intuitions. Conceivability or inconceivability is a life’s work—it’s not something where you just screw up your head for a second!”

The Alabama Freedom March began on this date in 1965. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and 3,200 demonstrators set off on a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the disenfranchisement of black voters... WA
5:30/6:50, 59/73/46, 6:57 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pinhead dancers and friendly ghosts

Back from the break, diving into neo-Platonism and scholasticism, and a report on Harry Frankfurt's Bullshit ("On Bullshit" was originally penned in '86 and published in '05). "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this." Yes, everyone. Especially the purveyors, who don't really believe their own horse hockey. Do they? Or care about it, so long as it's "believable" enough to support the brand? Frankfurt, by the way, also wrote the natural sequel: "On Truth"... boy do we need that now more than ever!

Also, reports are scheduled on Peter Singer's Ethics in the Real World and (with Descartes and his "what if I'm dreaming?" worry in mind) Inception ("Forget the end of the film. Think about the beginning and the real world..."). Maybe Nigel Warburton's Classics too. And the Simpsons again? D'oh!

The year 529 is a semi-arbitrary but convenient milestone, with Emperor Justinian's shuttering of the philosophical schools in Athens ushering in a millennium of intellectual somnambulism. The Sleeping Beauty version of this narrative says philosophy pricked its finger on Christianity and awaited an awakening buss from its aforementioned French rationalist Prince Rene in the 17th century.

Looking back from then, Francis Bacon would complain of "cobwebs of learning'' and Thomas Hobbes would say the problem was Roman religion's sponsorship of "Aristotelity"-which is is not Aristotelianism but its unthinking authoritarian parody, made to conform with Church dogma and stripped of curiosity. 

It needn't have been so. A respectful Aristotelianism fused with theology might have had wonderful discursive results, with talk of soul and sin leading seamlessly into fruitful reflections on mind-body and free will. Instead, "Christians were required to believe, for example, that a piece of wafer could become flesh... and that God could become three persons at once." 

Were? Past tense?  Let's not be smug, standing here potentially on the precipice of another Dark Ages "led" by benighted Climate and Science Deniers, Conspiracy Kooks, and ethnic chauvinists. Sad. Scary. Wonder what Stephen King thinks of Steve King? Who's scarier? No contest.

"By the year 1000, medicine, physics, astronomy, biology and indeed all branches of theoretical knowledge except theology had virtually collapsed. Even the few relatively educated men, holed up in mosasteries, knew markedly less than many Greeks had done eight centuries earlier... In short, Christendom was colossally ignorant."

The cult of Aristotle was sloppy, and inattentive to their favorite (& only) Philosopher's actual views. Medieval Christians "knew" that the soul survives death. Aristotle said it didn't, his God was disinterested in humans, and he was dubious about that wafer. We must not forget that "he himself was animated by the spirit of open-minded inquiry," which at its best uses the spoken and printed word to fuel passionate curiosity-not shut it down. So, "the real problem with medieval learning is that the medieval professors allowed themselves to be tyrannized by books... Instead of putting ideas to the test of new experience, they... put them to the test of old books." Old books are great, but they should never have the last word.

Image result for casper the friendly ghost catching a ballHow many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Hint: How many bodies do you need to dance? Call this the Caspar the Friendly Ghost Problem: how can Caspar move through a wall AND catch a ball? Dan Dennett is "convinced that Descartes’ dualism — the idea that an immaterial mind interacts with a material body — was a 'cul-de-sac'... 'There was a latent contradiction built into the very idea of Casper the Friendly Ghost and basically that’s what’s wrong with dualism. Nobody’s ever solved that problem remotely satisfactorily.'" It was an entertaining show, but I recall being perturbed when they interrupted it one day to break the news of President Kennedy's assassination.

I want to get a word in for Philo of Alexandria, the millennial philosopher with the perfect name who nowadays gets little attention or respect. He began, and a pagan teacher named Alcinous continued, "a tradition of marrying holy scriptures to Greek philosophy" with the claim that the God of scripture is identical with the Good of Plato. ("Plato himself would have insisted that they were utterly different.) Like many arranged marriages, these were often bereft of passion and hard to sustain. But it was, and for some still is, a popular tradition.

Another Diogenes (not the Dog Philosopher) created "the strangest document in the history of philosophy" (c.120 AD) with a huge Vietnam Memorial-like colonnade inscribed with Epicurean wisdom updated to catch the zeitgeist of "salvation" through philosophy. That's not really what Epicurus was talking about. 

This is another arranged marriage likely to founder, unless we understand that those who've attained ataraxia consider themselves already "saved," not lost. They aren't looking to go anywhere. As Jennifer Michael Hecht says, Epicureans aren't looking for a path out of the forest. They just wanted to hang a "Home Sweet Home" sign on a tree" and chill. "...pick some blueberries, sit beneath a tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze... Just try to have a good time."

Plotinus's "Neoplatonism" was trying to eff the ineffable, to describe the indescribable. Futility, thy name is Plotinus. It all comes down (or goes up?) to The One, for him. But it's all the same, isn't it, in this Heraclitean flux? But The One is beyond being. Doesn't seem like there'd be much more to say. Just, “withdraw into yourself and look.” 

When he withdrew and looked, Plotinus claimed to see that  “the world is finite, harmonious, and good,” that it possesses a purchase on divine perfection by virtue of the continuous "emanations" therefrom that reach even us. How does he know that? “The stars are like letters that inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky. Everything in the world is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together.” Yes, but... You really get all that from a sweep of introspection, Plotinus? Why don't I? Why doesn't everyone? Is it possible you're reading some things into your account, engaging in a bit of wishful thinking? And engaging in a bit of corporeal revulsion, "almost ashamed of being in the body"? But how, except with your body, are you going to hammer up a HOME sign, sit under a tree, and chill?  

"Proclus of Athens (*412–485 C.E.) was the most authoritative philosopher of late antiquity and played a crucial role in the transmission of Platonic philosophy from antiquity to the Middle Ages." He was a magical thinker, holding that "the job of philosophy was merely to explain spiritual truths which had already been arrived at by other means" and "treat[ing] the basic premises of his theology as if they were beyond question." Magical thinking endures in our time. Fortunately, questioners do too.

Lots of good questions suggest themselves today. How do we respect and revere books without being "tyrannized" by them, for instance? How should we think about Caspar? What is "salvation"? What's the job of philosophy? My answer to the last: to help us figure out how not to be tyrannized, how to think about Caspar, how not to think of ourselves as "lost" so we won't have to be "saved."
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Amy Krouse Rosenthal has died. She was not lost. Her remarkable viral essay bespeaks an Epicurean love of life that was its own saving grace. "Her favorite line from literature, she once said, was in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” as spoken by the character Emily as she bids the world goodbye: 'Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?'

When she reached 40, Ms. Rosenthal began calculating how many days she had left until she turned 80.

“How many more times, then, do I get to look at a tree?” she asked. “Let’s just say it’s 12,395. Absolutely, that’s a lot, but it’s not infinite, and I’m thinking anything less than infinite is too small a number and not satisfactory. At the very least, I want to look at trees a million more times. Is that too much to ask?”
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Happy birthday Albert Einstein, who said "The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives." And, “The important thing is not to stop questioning." And, “It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”  And, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

Image result for einstein on a bicycle

5:30/7 am, 37/41/22, 6:51

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Sk(c)eptics

Today in CoPhi it's skeptics. Or sceptics, if you prefer the British spelling. Or you can follow their lead and refuse to commit. "Don't commit, and you won't be disappointed."

I haven't generally found that to be a reliable guidepost in life, instead taking my cue from the lesson James's "first act of free will" (noted last time) seems to me to teach: don't just sit there, stand and select a destination. And get going. As my old pal the Carolina prof says, do something - even if it's wrong. And as James also said, "our errors surely are not such awfully solemn things." Lighten up.  Pick a path. Move.

But that's my therapy, it may not be yours. Some of us really do prefer sitting on a fence, avoiding firm opinions, keeping all accounts open. And there's no doubt, a healthy dose of skepticism is good for you. But how much is too much? 

My answer is implied by the bumper sticker message on my bulletin board: "even fatalists look both ways before crossing the street." If you stop looking, you're either too skeptical or not skeptical enough. Probably a lunatic, too. Or the ruler of the universe. "I say what it occurs to me to say when I think I hear people say things. More I cannot say."

Point is, we need beliefs to motivate action lest we sit and starve like Buridan's ass, or cross paths with a cart and get flattened. Prudence demands commitment. Commitment is no guarantee against error and disappointment, but indifference and non-commitment typically leave us stuck in the middle of the road or drop us off the cliff.

That wasn't Pyrrho's perspective, jay- and cliff-walker though he was. Fortunately for him, he seems always to have had friends steering him from the edge. His prescription - but is a skeptic allowed to prescribe? - was to free yourself from desires, don't care how things will turn out, persuade yourself that nothing ultimately matters, and you'll eventually shuck all worry. Or not. If we all were Pyrrho "there wouldn't be anyone left to protect the Pyrrhonic Sceptics from themselves." Prudence wins again.

Prudence and moderation. "The point of moderate philosophical scepticism is to get closer to the truth," or further at least from falsehood and bullshit. Easier said than done, in these alt-fact days of doublespeak. "All the great philosophers have been [moderate] sceptics," have sought truth and spurned lies, have deployed their baloney detectors and upheld the bar of objective evidence. Sincerity alone won't cut it.
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These anti-realist doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry... Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial-notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
So, be a skeptic. But to paraphrase David Hume and Jon Batiste, stay human. ("Be a philosopher, but amidst your philosophy be still a man.")

Read Skeptic magazine, which in the latest issue doubts the possibility of eternal youth and features the parodic perspective of Mr. Deity. Skeptic's editor Michael Shermer says “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” And, “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know.”

Pyrrho must not have been that crazy, to have lived to nearly ninety. "He did not act carelessly in the details of everyday life," said a defender, he just suspended judgment as to their ultimate import in the larger truths of things. Or maybe he just wanted to protect his batting average, so to speak. If you never swing, you'll never miss. But you'll still strike out if you take too many.

David Hume, again. He was a skeptic but he didn't let that interfere with living. He ventured opinions but couched them in philosophic humility. He knew we couldn't all be Pyrrho, for "all action would immediately cease" and "the necessities of nature" would "put an end to [our] miserable existence." Miserable? He must have been having a bad day. Generally he was of great cheer and humane disposition.

So let's not throw in the sponge on humanity just yet. What a strange expression, "throwing in the sponge"-it comes from the Roman Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who told a story about a painter who stopped trying so hard to paint the perfect representation of a horse's mouth and discovered that sometimes it's best to just let fly. Fling your sponge, let it land where it may. Okay, if you're just painting. If you're living a life, though, maybe just a bit less skepticism is prudent.

Is it possible to go through life questioning and doubting everything, committing always to nothing, and holding no firm opinions? Is it desirable or useful to try doing so? And do you know anyone who doesn't look both ways before crossing the street?
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Happy birthday Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), who said “If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along and you'll start happening too.” And “It's opener, out there, in the wide, open air.” And “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” And “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

Happy birthday too to Tom Wolfe, who admired the Stoics and asked "What is it you're looking for in this endless quest? Tranquillity. You think if only you can acquire enough worldly goods, enough recognition, enough eminence, you will be free, there'll be nothing more to worry about, and instead you become a bigger and bigger slave to how you think others are judging you.” And “One of the few freedoms that we have as human beings that cannot be taken away from us is the freedom to assent to what is true and to deny what is false. Nothing you can give me is worth surrendering that freedom for."

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