Delight Springs

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Hope for the flowers (2)

John Lachs, in his most recent Berry Lecture, said "What horrifies is that we may disappear without having made a difference, like the butterfly that hovered over a flower for a minute a thousand years ago."

But here we still are, a thousand years on, talking about that butterfly. Butterflies have their effects (though not always as popularly conceived). Oh, the horror? Or the hope? The latter, surely, for glass-half-full butterfly people who believe even the slightest constructive efforts may ripple down the years in ever-wider waves.

That was my intended insinuation in lasts week's post-lecture reflections Hope for the flowers, a title swiped from the classic graphic allegory of life, revolution, and hope "for adults and others (including caterpillars who can read)" by Trina Paulus.

I once received that book as a parting gift from coworkers at the old independent bookstore (the big one on Hillsboro Pike behind the clocktower that's now a bank). They meant to inspire my own confident hope in tackling the final phase of my formal education, on the way to transmogrifying into a settled academic.

Academia's not everyone's idea of a butterfly haven, but it was then mine. I don't guess I was wrong, as the transformation occurred a few short years later and now here I've lit, tenured and privileged with the opportunity to try and give encouragement and hope to successive waves of students seeking to shuck their own chrysalises.

I've always known John to be of the butterfly tribe, the sort of pragmatic stoic who indulges the hopeful mood and infects others with it. A generous man, in the way of Camus when he said "real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present," John always made his caterpillarish students believe they had an inner butterfly just waiting to burst forth.

That's one of the ways of hope, to breed confidence and embolden growth in timid or tentative souls. Social hope for life's eventual denouement, for the millennial butterflies we'll never know, is like that too. It should breed confidence in our species' long-term prospects, reflected in a growing sense of urgency to give all to the present.

Our highest hope was never entirely for ourselves in a personal sense, but for those on whose metamorphosed good fortune we'd be honored and gratified to have some small effect - whether we lived to see it or not.

6 am/5:57, 73/89/70

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Rawls, Turing & Searle, Singer

It's our last class of the semester in CoPhi, wrapping up with John Rawls, Alan Turing, John Searle (who's lately joined an ignoble list of alleged philosopher/harassers, but that's another topic), and Peter Singer.

Rawls' "stroke of genius" was his Original Position thought experiment, seeking fairness and justice (for Rawls justice is fairness) via the imaginative contrivance of a "veil of ignorance." The idea is to acknowledge and lessen the undue influence of special interest pleading in our politics, allowing only those inequalities of wealth, status, privilege, opportunity, and resources that benefit all. The least well-off must be better off, when the veil is lifted, than otherwise. [SoL video]

Alan Turing's Imitation Game, "proposing the practical test of whether or not we would attribute intelligence to a system whose performance is indistinguishible from that of a human agent," says if it walks and talks like a smart duck it practically is one. John Searle countered with the Chinese Room, which "purports to show that even effective computer simulations do not embody genuine intelligence, since rule-governed processes need not rely upon understanding by those who perform them."

But some philosophers remain convinced that  we might someday use computers to achieve virtual immortality. That didn't work out so well for Johnny Depp in Transcendence. "I can't feel anything," says the uploaded semblance of his former self. If that's the singularity I hope it's nowhere near, Ray Kurzweil. "Transcending biology" might strip us of our humanity and not replace it with anything better.

Peter Singer says we should always be prepared to sacrifice "one or two of the luxuries that we don't really need" to help strangers. When you put it that way it doesn't really sound like "a hard philosophy to live up to," much as we love our branded shoes and suits, our cars and college funds, and our carnivorous ways. "But that doesn't mean Singer is wrong about what we ought to do." We ought to do a great deal more good for those in need than we do, most of us. Maybe we ought to stop eating sentient animals. Certainly we ought to stop inflicting gratuitous pain on all who can feel it. We ought to be less selfish and more cooperative.

Singer "represents the very best tradition in philosophy," if you agree that "constantly challenging widely held assumptions" like Socrates is the very best tradition. Kwame Anthony Appiah basically agrees, but would modify Singer's principle to something like: “if you are the best person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won’t cost you much to do so, do it.” [Singer slides]

We could say more, but there's a little exam we're itching to get on with. Suffice for now to say what Professor James always says on the last day of every class, as he said the last time he said anything at all. In the words of his favorite pluralistic mystic, “there is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!”

Actually there is one important bit of advice all philosophers will endorse:
Albert Einstein
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. #Einstein

And then there's some good advice about how to prepare for an exam.

And since it's poet Ted Kooser's birthday I'll add one more thing. Like Anthony Trollope, who said “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules,” Kooser had a habit of "rising early every morning so he could write for an hour and a half before going to the office." He wrote seven books that way, and became poet laureate. So the advice (which James also gave, notwithstanding his parting reluctance to say so) is: form good daily work habits and stick to 'em. "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." -Annie Dillard

Good luck!

5:30/6:02, 53/80, 7:27

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rough road ahead

"Blackberry winter," my wife calls this late (for these parts) cold snap and deluge. But it's just weather, towards which (as Mr. Twain said) we're characteristically all talk and no action. These days, though, we have to wonder if weather is also climate change, and whether other things must now change as well. James Lovelock, the Gaia guru, has said we'll have to migrate northward before long to cope with it all. Hope he's wrong.

Human Migration (the course) concludes tomorrow evening, with an interdisciplinary roundtable featuring all of us content-providers: the philosopher, the political scientist, the sociologist, the dance instructor... As cosmopolitan a tableau as you'll ever see in the modern classroom, and an appropriate final punctuation mark for my block contribution,  "The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism." My message has been simple: science supports our better ethical instincts, those that trust rather than fear the "stranger" among us. We are the stranger. We are stronger together.

That's what the Marchers for Science were saying too, on Earth Day Saturday. They had some great signs, including this one:
The Vulcans were always on board with cosmopolitanism, with their ethos of IDIC - infinite diversity from infinite combinations. Will humans join them? Will we become a Federation? Or will we devolve?

A recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education worries that Colleges Are Rejecting Our Common Humanity and the Science That Reveals It. That trend, if continued, would be devolution.

Anthony Appiah's latest moralizing in The Ethicist urges instead the moral high ground. To the woman whose husband criticizes her "moral superiority" for refraining from saying demeaning things about people in private she wouldn't say in public he observes: "We let ourselves off the hook when we reflexively use “morally superior” as disparagement, as a synonym for toxic condescension. News flash: It’s morally superior to be morally superior." We can do better.

We clearly have a long journey ahead of us. Cassini is a good role model, already imposing the Prime Directive. "One reason scientists want to make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey is to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there. Just in case..."

Its grand finale began yesterday, while only last week it discovered "possible life-supporting hydrothermal vents" on the moon Enceladus." Will we discover unexpected sources of life-support, before we begin our descent? Per ardua ad astra, a rough road leads to the stars.
Happy birthday Anthony Trollope. "He would write 1,000 words an hour before breakfast; he said, 'A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.'”

6 am/6:03, 55/68/52, 7:26

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hope for the flowers

Our annual Spring Lyceum featured Ron Aronson, author of We:Reviving Social Hope and 
Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided
Aronson proposes contemporary answers to *Immanuel Kant’s three great questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What can I hope? Grounded in the sense that we are deeply dependent and interconnected beings who are rooted in the universe, nature, history, society, and the global economy, Living Without God explores the experience and issues of 21st-century secularists, especially in America. Reflecting on such perplexing questions as why we are grateful for life’s gifts, who or what is responsible for inequalities, and how to live in the face of aging and dying... Grds
I asked him about the intersection of secularism and social hope. He said the connection was very clear: we are on our own, help is not on the way, hope is ours for the making. Yes we can.

Night before last, John Lachs delivered this year's Berry Lecture at Vanderbilt: "Death and Self-Importance." Same premise, tone a little less hopeful. 
"Sad as it may sound to say it, probability favors the view that death is final. Our delights are like the joys of the butterfly that hovered over a flower for a precious minute a thousand years ago. And then it is over in a moment of grace.
Of course we can hope for more..."
On Earth Day, "the world’s largest secular holiday," we can and we must, to do less is to surrender to misanthropy and despair. Make Earth great again!

Lachs prefaced his talk by remarking on the lovely flowers near the Divinity School on Vandy's campus, and on the delight he ("on all fours") and we can take in their fleeting loveliness. If my talk seems too dark, he said, "remember the flowers."

And that's what Robert Frost said.
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year... (A Prayer in Spring)
But I'm still thinking far away too, as Cassini plunges, with hope for the flowers and all who delight in them. And all who follow. Speaking with my former student at the reception last night about our now-common joy of raising precocious children (and feeling envious of his time now spent in the daily company of a smart seven-year old, and nostalgic for mine long gone), I was reminded of Michael Chabon's plea for hope both near and far away.
If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly... then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that... they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free.
"The really vital question for us all" is still, for me, full of hope. “We can fly! “We can become butterflies! “There’s nothing at the top and it doesn’t matter!” Hope for the Flowers

Happy birthday *Immanuel Kant. “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe [...] the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

7 am/6:06, 55/65/48, 7:25, rain

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, Foot & Thomson

It's our penultimate semester class date, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Philippa Foot, and Judith Jarvis Thomson today in CoPhi.

Wittgenstein was one odd duck. Or rabbit. Or duckrabbit. What do you see, and how do you see it? Why do you see it that way? He thought these were questions worth investigating, in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations. I'm more inclined to follow the instruction of proposition 7 in his pre-humous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Famous premature last words.

"Raised in a prominent Viennese family, Ludwig Wittgenstein studied engineering in Germany and England, but became interested in the foundations of mathematics and pursued philosophical studies with Moore at Cambridge before entering the Austrian army during World War I. The notebooks he kept as a soldier became the basis for his Tractatus, which later earned him a doctorate and exerted a lasting influence on the philosophers of the Vienna circle. After giving away his inherited fortune, working as a village schoolteacher in Austria, and designing his sister's Vienna home, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, where he developed a new conception of the philosophical task. His impassioned teaching during this period influenced a new generation of philosophers..."

The Tractatus said we can't speak meaningfully about our most important questions in ethics and religion (and maybe language), and so should hold our tongues. That may sound like Freddy Ayer's "nonsense," but Wittgenstein was not being dismissive, he was courting mysticism. He presumed that language fails to mirror reality because we cannot verify their correspondence, cannot faithfully and flawlessly replicate in words the facts and meanings that lie beyond them.

The Philosophical Investigations takes a linguistic turn. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” not its relation to something non-linguistic in the world. The uses of words are discovered and decreed in our "language games," which include but crucially are not limited to the games philosophers play about truth. Those games can get us stuck like a fly in a bottle, and he wanted to pop the cork. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

How do you avoid linguistic captivity in the first place? Not by inventing your own private language. Language is intrinsically public, and only other users of our language can call us out for the  language errors we don't catch. A private language is too much like Leibniz' private monadic theaters of mind, too much like a game of solitaire played with improvised rules.

But rules presuppose other rule-followers, and language games presuppose other players. So the question is how do we break the spell of language, when it bewitches and confuses us? It's tempting to say "it's only a game," we can always play a different one. Can we?  “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Won't language always hold us captive in this sense?

The Investigations thus seem to bring Wittgenstein full circle, back to the concluding counsel of the Tractatus. “So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.” I know what he means, I often feel that way when doing philosophy, and especially when watching others do philosophy. But now and then someone will say or write something that provokes an "ah-ha!" moment, and language seems less captor than liberator. Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had that effect on many of my peers in grad school, with its proposal that the pictures holding us captive in philosophy are optional. We can just decide to give up the picture of words as mirrors? That's a game-changer.

“Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” And vice versa. Peripatetics know this. You aren't necessarily lost, in language, you're exploring. Try another path. Start another conversation. Read another book. Write another sentence.
  Hannah Arendt covered Adolf Eichmann's war crimes trial for The New Yorker in 1963 ("Eichmann in Jerusalem"), finding him the very epitome of banality, "an ordinary man who chose not to think too hard about what he was doing." The banality of evil resides in the hearts and minds of heartless, thoughtless functionaries. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." And they pay that "normality" forward, to catastrophic and tragic result. “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism has suddenly again become must-reading. "The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.... The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists...  one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” 

Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemeies is must-reading too. "Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them... We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Popper said science progresses when we find reasons to falsify, rather than confirm, a favored hypothesis. Science proceeds not by proving things but by pruning falsehoods. It skirts the problem of induction, the problem of our never having enough particular experiences of a phenomenon to support a generalized knowledge claim, by looking instead for falsifying counterexamples.

Thomas Kuhn said shift happens. Paradigm shifts are revolutions in though, when "normal science" fails to make sense of new observations and ways of thinking. “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like... Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.” When the puzzles seem insoluble, researchers become receptive to new paradigms. The Copernican Revolution was a paradigm shift. Einstein's E=mc2 was another. Aren't we about due for a new one?

Thought experiments don't require a lab, just an experimental cast of mind and the integrity to report one's results honestly when they disconfirm one's prejudices. Philippa Foot (R.I.P./Guardian) and Judith Jarvis Thomson gave us runaway train and trolley thought experiments (YouT, toolkit).

"Critics of the trolley problem say it is too unrealistic to reveal anything important about real-life morality. But the rise of drones and self-driving cars makes the dilemma perhaps more relevant than ever before. For example, should a self-driving car protect the life of its passengers, even at the expense of a greater number of pedestrians? Here too, our intuitions are inconsistent: we want other people’s cars to maximize the number of lives saved – but think our own car should protect us at all costs. As our technologies become increasingly capable of making moral decisions, understanding our own moral intuitions becomes all the more crucial." Guardian

Thomson topped herself in "A Defense of Abortion" with an unsolicited surgically attached violinist. Not everyone think this bizarre scenario supports Thomson's fetal intentions, but it's certainly got people talking.
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous...
And therefore...?
?? Should we be silent about things we can't prove? Should philosophy concern itself with more than understanding the logic of language? Do you use language as a pictorial medium, a tool for managing social relationships and expressing our thoughts and feelings, or what? Are ordinary people capable of great evil? Are you? How can we be sure that a Holocaust will never happen again? What will you teach your children about that? If the government attempted to round up, detain, and deport millions of Latinos and Muslims, how would you respond? Is "the banality of evil" relevant to our time?
"It's the birthday of one of the founders of psychiatry, Philippe Pinel, born in Saint-André, France (1745). He studied mathematics, theology, and internal medicine before becoming the chief physician at a Paris insane asylum in 1792. Before Pinel arrived, conditions at the asylum were horrible: Among other things, patients were chained to the walls, and people could pay a fee to come in and watch them..."  It's the anniversary of Columbine (1999) and Deepwater Horizon (2010)...

5:30/6:08, 63/87, 7:23

Monday, April 17, 2017


My block in Human Migration (MALA 6010), "The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism," continues.

We began last week with the genetic science and anthropological mapping that documents our common lineage. We're all related, as the native Americans knew without benefit of population genetics, but now we can prove it. We'll glance back, with a look at our Spencer Wells posts, and then maybe do a little peripatetic migrating ourselves before the sun sets.

Nice genetics poem today at Writers Almanac, btw, prefaced by Richard Dawkins: "There is no gene which single-handedly builds a leg, long or short. Building a leg is a multi-gene cooperative enterprise." As is building a society. 

Also noteworthy: it's Isak Dinesen's birthday. She wrote Out of Africa, before we knew we all were.

This week we turn to the philosopher and ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah's (emhasis on the first syllable) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. His main message is nicely condensed in the shortest (if not simplest) answer to the question "Whose people made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, and the Sistine Chapel?": ours.

Krista Tippett's On Being conversation with Appiah, largely about how much he invests in the very concept of conversation itself as our last best tool of reconciliation and mutual comprehension (though decidedly not consensus), is typically self-validating.
How can unimaginable social change happen in a world of strangers? Appiah is a philosopher who studies ethics and his parents’ marriage helped inspire the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In a tense moment in American life, he has refreshing advice on simply living with difference... (play episode
You do have to hear their conversation and not just read the transcript, to catch its nuance and its full humanity. But his best advice is to "sidle up" the big and divisive conversations by first establishing a context of trust through more mundane and unifying ones. Our differences over politics or religion will be less likely to spoil and end conversation after we've discussed, say, our shared love of baseball - even though you're a Cubs fan (like Younger Daughter) and I prefer the Cardinals (who couldn't buy a win against Older Daughter's Yankees this weekend).

Appiah is a respected advice-giver, having inherited "The Ethicist" weekly column in the New York Times Magazine. He sidles up to questions like: "Should a Family Member Expose a Niece’s Fake Food Allergy? My Friend Is Bankrupting Herself. Should I Speak Up? What Should You Do WIth Your Father's Nazi Keepsake? Should You Tell Uber Your Driver Wasw High? Can Therapists Fake Their Own Online Reviews? Is it OK to Marry an Amnesiac?" Dear Abby, Dear Abby. A recent sample reply characteristically pulls no punches.

The very idea of morality, thinks the ethicist, imposes global responsibilities. But our hearts and minds were formed locally and tribally. Our challenge, then, is to learn to think and act both globally and locally, to be true not only to our smaller tribes but also to the all-inclusive one that reaches "each person we know about and can affect," which in this wired world of instant information means everyone. That's not so slick on a sticker but it's true.

How deliciously ironic, that Cynics - Diogenes and his tribe - get credit for coining the concept of cosmopolitanism, and articulating the aspiration to be a citizen of the cosmos. The word may by now have acquired connotations of condescension, for some, but it's as noble an ideal as we've got. 

The irony continued with the Stoics, who "proved congenial" to many Christians even while the empire still sought to suppress them. Marcus Aurelius's Stoic humanism looked good in writing but lost something in translation to public policy. And that's still a problem, when the humane aspect of global understanding collides with the economic reality of globalism as corporate enterprise.

Appiah on Cosmopolitanism (video)... Appiah's personal philosophy (Big Think)... Is religion good or bad? (TED Talk)... Identity & cosmopolitanism (interview)... cosmopolitanism @dawn

6:30/6:12, 63/78/59, 7:20

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mill, Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx; AND Migration

Busy day ahead! Mill, Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx

Then tonight, as noted yesterday, it's the first of my two classes in the MALA course on Human Migration. I'm calling my block contribution "The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism," first retracing the genetic trail of Y-chromosome crumbs that prove we have indeed walked far, then wondering if we'll ever complete the mission summarized by that ambitious (if premature) plaque on the moon.

Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag

"Premature," I say, as evidenced by that other marker we left in the lunar dust.

Image result for "we came in peace" moon flag

Also premature perhaps in its implication that humans at this stage of their evolutionary development have in fact become a peaceable, or even reliably civil, species. I ventured out to the airport last night and was met with several instances of gratuitous incivility. Lots of us seem like powder kegs waiting to blow, these days. Oh well. At least I didn't get beat up or kicked off a plane. I'd rather walk than fly any day.

We might check in tonight with Frederic Gros's Philosophy of Walking, and Christopher Orlet's Gymnasiums of the Mind, and "Walking to the stars": Some of us fervently believe, with Nietzsche, Rousseau, and so many others, that the best ideas first come while walking. Some of us also believe we should expand our range to include more distant turf, over the Terran horizon. I'm a believer.

But first, those 19th century stars.

Mill, we've noted, disagree with Bentham about pleasure. He had nothing against "pushpin," just impatience with humans who wouldn't bother to explore more. His great passion was of course for liberty, so his insistence on qualitative pleasure-standards sets up a taut challenge: how to prescribe but not impose those standards, and still respect the rights of all to seek their own good in their own ways without (as John Lachs puts it) meddling. Open discussion in a free society, especially about our differences, forces invaluable self-critique. "If you don't have your views challenged by people with opposing views, then you will probably end up holding them as 'dead dogmas'..." But of course we rarely call out our own dogmas, it's other people's prejudices we detest. So we need to hear out other people.

The great Huxley-Wilberforce debate has probably grown in legend beyond its moment, but what wouldn't I give to have been there! I think Dan Dennett is probably right, evolution by natural selection is probably the single best idea anyone ever had. Huxley was probably right too, when he upbraided himself for not having thought of it first. The best ideas are often right under our noses, out of sight.

Since Darwin's day genetics, tonight's topic, "has given a detailed explanation of how inheritance works." It's not just a theory, it's a hypothesis with "a very substantial weight of evidence in support."

The Danish Socrates said evidence/schmevidence, what's that to me if my "subjective truth" says I should take a flying leap into the darkness. Some of us think Kierkegaard committed intellectual suicide, but we're glad somebody stepped up to defend the irrationalist position. It gives us more to talk about. And it's clear enough why some Existentialists (though not the atheists like Sartre) look back to the Melancholy Dane as their early prototype. Kierkegaard was all about "choosing how to live and the difficulty of knowing that your decision is the right one." My view is that you only make that more difficult, when you renounce reason. And, you do contradict yourself in the broadest sense of reason when you write tracts attempting to vindicate your irrationalism. Nigel's unvarnished judgment: "Faith involves risk. But it is also irrational: not based on reason."

But, give Kierkegaard credit for defending "the subjective point of view" against the pure objectifiers in philosophy who leave themselves no place to stand, pretending to occupy Professor Nagel's "view from nowhere." That really is a Nowhere Land, Nowhere Man.

Karl Marx always looks angry. The "grim conditions" of industrial capitalism and its assault on the poor and powerless dispossessed sent him to the British Library and into collaboration with Engels to crank out their Manifesto. The political struggle of class demanded and predicted revolution, they said. They took Hegel's history and said it's all coming to a head much sooner than his intellectualistic analysis allowed, given its manifest material contradictions. Theye didn't predict the Soviet Union, though.

"From each according to ability, to each according to need": a beautiful vision, which American students seem conditioned to reject as impossible. Seems to work pretty well in places like Denmark and Switzerland, though.

Finally, Marx famously called religion "the opium of the people." He didn't think that was an insult, but a sympathetic explanation. "In the new world after the revolution human beings would achieve their humanity." Sounds so naive, from the perspective of 2017. But humanity is an achievement, not just a genetic fact. We've got to reclaim it constantly.

Lotsa questions: Name two or three of your favorite pleasures. Are any of them higher or better than the others? In what way? Are any of yours higher or better than those of a friend whose list includes none of yours? Why or why not? Is state paternalism ever warranted? Why don't we ever talk about state maternalism? What are the appropriate legal limits on speech and expression in a free society, if any?
How would you reply to Wilberforce's debate question? What do you think was the best idea ever?
Do you want a map of your own genome? Why or why not? Do you agree with Darwin that the subject of God is "too profound for human intellect"? Does it mean we should all be agnostic? What would you have done, in Abraham's position? Would you have doubted the "message" or challenged the messenger? Does it damage the parent-child relationship if Mom or Dad make it clear to the child that they'll always defer to the perceived instructions of a "heavenly father," even including murderous instructions? Does anything "trump the duty to be a good [parent]"? Would you ever do something you considered morally wrong, in the name of faith? Does taking a "leap of faith" make you irrational? How do you balance your subjective point of view with objectivity, and with the subjectivity of others? What role should inter-subjectivity play, in forming that balance? If you ever own a business will you pay your workers as little as possible and extract as much "surplus value" from them as you can? Is anything in history "inevitable"? Does religion make people more reconciled to oppression and exploitation, and less likely to revolt?
In Human Migration: The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism, we lead off with Spencer Wells' Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. [Slides]

Wells is quick to disclaim any sexist intent with his genetically-informed title, to which some sensitive souls might object on the grounds of cultural insensitivity. "The journey we trace is one primarily made by men, because it is the Y-chromosome, inherited from Adam down the male line, which gives us our keenest tool for deciphering the journey." We might rather wish he'd left Adam out of it, since that story of Edenic seduction is inescapably freighted with sexist baggage. But you catch his point, or will if you follow him as he follows the DNA-Y Trail through the ages and across the continents.

Two questions mark our start: 
  • How do we decide if the concept of human 'race' has any validity? Are we indeed all one species, or are there discrete divisions among human groups?
  • How did we come to occupy every corner of the globe?
We're looking for answers in those ubiquitous, peripatetic Y-chromosomes. They carry us all over the globe and back through time. Indeed, Wells thinks of his genetic odyssey as a form of time travel "capable of resurrecting the stories of the past from people living in the present." And it reminds him of the Australian Aborigines "songlines" memorialized by Bruce Chatwin, evoking "actual journey taken by their ancestors during the Dreamtime, a period in the distant past, before collective memory."

Chatwin in turn reminds us of what the author of Remembrance of Things Past reminds us of. “Proust, more perspicaciously than any other writer, reminds us that the 'walks' of childhood form the raw material of our intelligence.” The walks of our species' childhood must have been similarly formative.

And, Chatwin writes,
“As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less 'aggressive' than sedentary ones.
There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a 'leveller' on which the 'fit' survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.
The journey thus pre-empts the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance. The 'dictators' of the animal kingdom are those who live in an ambience of plenty. The anarchists, as always, are the 'gentlemen of the road'.”
So we're all descended from anarchists. Good to know.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus is credited by Wells as the pioneering ethnographer who first introduced us to ethnic and cultural diversity, which has of course diversified considerably since his time. Only in the past decade or so have we been in a position to grasp the source and significance of all that human difference, to understand the sameness in difference that is its signal salience.

The aforementioned T.H. Huxley, reflecting on what he considered his own extreme stupidity not to have tumbled to natural selection himself, before Darwin, might also have reflected on its inexorable contribution to diversity. Pardon the indulgence of an old Trek geek who recalls in this connection the ancient Vulcan philosophy of IDIC: "infinite diversity from infinite combinations."

The uniformitarian geologist Charles Lyell and the catastrophist/naturalist Louis Agassiz debated whether "occasionally all hell would break loose." Theirs was no Wilberforce-Huxley standoff, but it gave young Darwin a frame for his questions as he boarded the Beagle in 1831. His ultimate unnamed subject, by the time he got around to penning his provisional conclusions in 1859, was "the diverse array of humanity... Why were people around the world so different from each other?" It must have been their nurture, not something deep and ineradicable in their nature. Their manners and practices may have appalled a Victorian gentleman, but then again so did those of Darwin's shipmates.

He also asked himself about the corresponding "commonality" that marked slavery as such a horrid abomination and led to his own call for abolition. You mustn't overrate outward appearances, in classifying humanity. "Our long habit of observing ourselves" sets us up to invest too much confidence in mere surface appearances. Go deeper. Look to the genes and their common branchpoints.

Polygenists postulate "many origins" rather than multiple branchings from a single family tree. That again is the problem with mentioning Adam, it revives the Genesis account that is contradicted by subsequent science and biologists'  findings of "extensive hybridization among human races."

Anthropology in the early 20th century was overtly political, aiming "to serve humanity as well as study it" - not an objectionable aspiration as such, but susceptible to racist abuse when coupled with dreams of eugenic purity and immigration austerity. Ironically it was Darwin's own cousin Galton who pushed for the former. Philosopher Herbert Spencer sowed confusion we're still saddled with, in his advocacy of Social Darwinism. Darwin himself was no Social Darwinist, no "survivalist" willing to sacrifice the gen-poor for the gen-rich. In the long run of Darwinian natural selection it may well turn out that the fittest are also the kindest, the most solicitous of the weak, the most cooperative, the most progressive.

Culture is important. That's the message in Wells' chapter 8, which begins with an ancient Sumerian creation myth that says the gods drank too much beer before they got busy creating our mad mad world. I guess that would explain a lot.

And the "selfish gene" hypothesis? “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” Thus spake Richard Dawkins in the first edition of The Selfish Gene. He was encouraged by people "learned in philosophy" (to borrow his derisively-dipped phrase) to reformulate for the second edition. Are we born selfish? Or, would our genes be selfish if they had a choice?

Either way, culture (and specifically education) is the arena in which we must "try to teach generosity and altruism." If we succeed, we may also claim some degree of independence from our "selfish genes," some freedom from strict genetic determinism. If we fail, we will still at least have declared the human journey ours as much as theirs. But we have to try. What would we be if we didn't? (If you, like me, are a Lyle Lovett fan, you know what comes next. "Please, if it's not too late..." (Extra credit to the first student who can complete the sentence.)

"The Polynesian seafarers who colonized Hawaii were accomplished sailors," to the consternation of Captain Cook and his company of British colonizers. Time and again we tend to mistake cultural difference for inferiority. "It is easy to forget that only a few hundred generations ago we were all hunter-gatherers." Easy, and self-serving for those who want to "discover" and conquer "new" lands. It's not enough for them "to boldly go," to come and go in peace for all mankind. Not yet. When? Perhaps in the next few hundred generations, if we can learn to think like the Long Now Foundation wants us to.  10,000 years is really just the blink of an eye, in genetic terms.

Speaking of genetic terms, I'll bet I'm not the only non-biologist who could use a handy-refresher glossary... Human Genetics: The Basics... Evolution: The Basics... Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (and Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival)

Neolithic humans left us an impressive legacy when they took up farming, beginning with the concept of choice and free will. They chose "not to wander for miles each day to gather their food." That was a big breakthrough for civilization, of course, but it came at a cost for those who forgot the benefits of wandering. All who wander are not lost.

That's a quick fly-over of about half of what we want to discuss this evening. Can't wait.
A new book asks: "Is our common humanity a discovery or an invention?" It's both.

Still thinking about Ann Lamott and the civil impulse to connect, multiply, and flourish (like the sea anemone) rather than withdraw and scowl in suspicious mistrust of the world (like Nixon). That's how bridges get built and life gets better.

Today is the birthday of Ellen Goodman, who said “It has been a great gift to make a living trying to make sense out of the world around me." I know what she means.

5:30/6:20, 58/76/54, 7:15

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism

Back from Honors Day with Older Daughter at her school in Illinois, where she was ceremonially celebrated as the Outstanding Senior in cinema production. The prof who conferred her award said she won because she brings such intelligence, leadership, kindness, and fun to the classroom. What made Dad proudest was her request for the microphone (none of the other awardees did that) to say she wanted to take advantage of what might be her last award, and to thank her teachers. So, add to her resume the winning qualities of humility and gratitude. It won't be her last award.

But today I must put pride aside and think hard about the fifth class I'll be teaching tomorrow, beginning at 6 pm - just when I'd normally be hitting the highway after an already-exhaustingly long day.

What was I thinking, when I agreed to teach two Tuesday night April sessions of a course on Human Migration? I wasn't thinking about how ridiculously-many hours I'd be in the classroom those days, this being a semester when all my classes meet on TTh. I do recall rehearsing the old Nietzschean canard about what doesn't kill you etc., so I'll try to remember to draw strength from the experience and not fall into the abyss.

Part of what I must have been thinking was that, while I'd never taught "migration" per se, I had thought quite a lot about human mobility and its impact on life. A peripatetic philosopher eagerly begins each day with an enthusiastic first step. For an infant that's the first real act of self-possession and self-reliance. For an infant species it's the first move towards expansion and growth. Spreading out on terra firm lays claim to a broader sense of home.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and then Neil Tyson's, paid great attention to this subject. "We have walked far," from the plains of Africa to Tranquility Base. "We came for all mankind." We're not there yet, we still have a journey before us.

Our two-class journey begins with Spencer Wells' Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. Next week we'll conclude with Kwame Anthony Appiah's  Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

We'll reflect (says my formal block description) on human migration's "contributions to the interweaving of culture, thought, and the creation of world citizenship. The practical and ethical upshot of global migration and immigration is that we live in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. Old patterns of nationalism, chauvinism, and mutual mistrust are challenged by this most promising form of globalism." It's a journey to cosmopolitanism, to citizenship in the cosmos.

Listening to Krista Tippett talk to "bridge-builders" while driving home from Illinois yesterday, it occurred to me that the journey in question requires more than just the stamina of a peripatetic. It also takes patience, attention to detail, and an openness to difference. It takes bridges instead of walls, and a willingess to work at repairing what's broken. "The greatest antidote to reducing everything, absurdly, to two sides, is actually engaging another human being because each of us contains multitudes."

So, stamina for sure. And intelligence, leadership, kindness, fun, humility, and gratitude. And plenty of caffeine.
Happy birthday Ann Lamott, whose thoughts on connecting convey a definite cosmopolitan message (I quoted her at the end of my book Springs offering a stark choice between withdrawing in the fashion of Nixon in the White House OR reaching out like a sea anemone)...  and Paul Theroux, whose travel writing (like all good travel writing) shows us the world is full of strangers just like us.

6 am/6:21, 59/80, 7:14

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Spinoza, Locke, Reid, Berkeley, Voltaire & Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau

Back from the conference in Ottawa and KC, where I've now comfortably rebooted my old tradition of resetting the season and preparing the return to life known as Opening Day (met the author of a book by that title in Ottawa, celebrating the heroic courage of Jack Roosevelt Robinson). It was easier to walk across the hall for the annual baseball conference, but as Baruch Spinoza would tell you if he could, easy is overrated.

Spinoza didn't make it easy on himself by affirming pantheism, but perhaps he found the solace of solidarity with nature and the universe sufficiently off-setting and worth the cost in personal terms. He thought he'd touched all the bases: God, nature, freedom, emotion, everything. QED (Not quite easily done.)

He "claimed to demonstrate both the necessary existence and the unitary nature of the unique, single substance that comprises all of reality. Spinoza preferred the designation "Deus sive Natura" ("god or nature") as the most fitting name for this being, and he argued that the its infinite attributes account for every feature of the universe."

An infinite God leaves no remainder, but also leaves individuals without a personal savior. He didn't think he needed one, with his rationalist's intellectual love of God. Free will may be an illusion, but a Spinozism of freedom is supposed to free us from reactionary passions like anger and self-pity. He would have been pleased by Einstein's endorsement. “I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind..."

But, freedom? "It would be moral bondage if we were motivated only by causes of which we remain unaware, so genuine freedom comes only with knowledge of what it is that necessitates our actions. Recognizing the invariable influence of desire over our passionate natures, we then strive for the peace of mind that comes through an impartial attachment to reason." Much easier said than done. But again, Spinoza wasn't about easy.

John Locke's empiricism overstated the blankness of our slates, and relied too heavily on memory as a guarantor of personal identity. Thomas Reid was not in his league, but may still have had a better idea with his overlapping memories thesis. Until we become cyborg, total recall will not be an option.

Locke "greatly admired the achievements that his friends in the Royal Society had made in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he sought to clear the ground for future developments by providing a theory of knowledge compatible with such carefully-conducted study of nature. The goal of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was to establish epistemological foundations for the new science by examining the reliability, scope, and limitations of human knowledge in contrast with with the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere superstition. Since the sciences had already demonstrated their practical success, Locke tried to apply their Baconian methods to the pursuit of his own philosophical aims. In order to discover how the human understanding achieves knowledge, we must trace that knowledge to its origins in our experience."

Samuel Johnson's stone-kicking refutation of Bishop Berkeley's idealism is usually met with derision, but as a practical response I place it in the same category as Diogenes' ambulatory refutation of Zeno's paradoxes. Works for me.

Berkeley's idealistic immaterialism ("in which he employed strictly empiricist principles in defense of the view that only minds or spirits exist") deserves some derision, though it also makes a perverse kind of sense if we don't repudiate Locke's representational realist assumption about ideas and their putative inferential sources. Better to repudiate, and admit that experience gives us the world - not just ideas of a world. But it gives us a world in need of elaboration and refinement, which was always the point of reflecting on experience in the first place.

Better also to repudiate the idea that being and perceiving are one. But, Berkeley's Three Dialogoues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) is still an entertaining read. "Here Berkeley spoke through Philonous ("Mind-lover"), who tries to convince his reluctant friend Hylas ("Woody") that it is only by rejecting the artificial philosophical concept of material substance that skepticism can be finally defeated and the truths of common-sense secured."

The poet Pope, like the Panglossian metaphysician Leibniz, said Being can't be improved on. What a demoralizing thought. "Superficiality incarnate," James called it. "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..."

François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, agreed acerbically and hilariously with James. But there was nothing funny about the Lisbon quake, or any natural cataclysm. If we have grounds for optimism it's not in the fact of such events, but in the constructive and ameliorative human response to them. Rebecca Solnit points this out effectively in her book A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She cites James's firsthand account of the great San Francisco quake of '06, wherein he details the sense of "social uplift" he took away from the willingness of people to pitch in and help one another through disaster. Hope springs eternal, for those who can keep their heads in a crisis.

Brains, John Campbell says in his Berkeley Philosophy Bites 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 [V&L, u@d]

“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

Plenty of people believe in a "pre-established harmony," and seem to find comfort in it. I've never understood the mindset of feeling blessed by the hurricane that obliterates the other side of the street, but that reflexive response seems always on tap for people in hurricane alley. It's hard to cultivate your garden if you and your garden have been blown away.

David Hume was a cheerful and clear-headed freethinker, prudently advised by friends not to say everything he thought in so many words. The dialogue form gave him just enough cover to keep people guessing as to the full extent of his heresies. But he was plenty clear that miracles, if by the term we mean anything other than an exceedingly improbable (though perfectly possible) event, do not happen. “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.” Hume also said
  • “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.” 
  • “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” 
  • "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."
  • "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” 
  • “He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper, but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to his circumstance.”
  • “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” 

He was also clear that he thought Epicurus had the right attitude towards life and death, annoying Johnson and Boswell with the calm he brought to his final hours.

And he thought Epicurus asked good questions. “Epicurus's old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”

Hume tried to be a friend to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but they became "enlightenend enemies." The bumptious Swiss was a peripatetic but also a bit of narcissist and rogue, and an advocate for the public interest (the General Will) as deserving priority over personal self-interest. He was right, if we're going to go to the trouble of creating civil institutions we really need to fund them. We all need to pay our share. But we all need to have a voice in identifying the public interest, too. We're finding out, aren't we, if that model will work in our time.
On this day in 1832, Charles Darwin (books by this author) traveling aboard the HMS Beagle landed on the shores of Rio de Janeiro as part of a five-year trip. “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.” But he remained hopeful that "the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply."
Hope is the subject of another terrific book by Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark... and of today's eponymous poem by Lisel Mueller. "It is the singular gift/we cannot destroy in ourselves, the argument that refutes death, the genius that invents the future, all we know of God."

Solnit: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” And, "To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” And, “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

And, someone concluded his book on William James with:

Hope-the need for it, the possibility of it, the sense of it as the only reputable alternative to inadmissible despair-is the center of his vision as I see it. The prime requisite of hope is confidence that what we do matters and may make all the difference further along the chain of life... "Hope" is that thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tunes without the words/And never stops at all.

5:30/6:30, 61/78/58, 7:09