10/31/07

Reasonable People Will Disagree

It’s a tricky thing bringing a debate to a conclusion without discord. You can “agree to disagree,” but that leaves you and your opponent on separate boats, drifting away from each other. Another parting thought is that “reasonable people will disagree.” You stick to your guns, but offer respect to your opponent–what more could anyone want?

Sadly enough, an article I’ve just finished makes me wonder if there’s anything to this platitude. In his contribution to the essay collection Philosophers without Gods, Fred Feldman says No. If you really disagree, how can you think your opponent is reasonable?

More today at Talking Philosophy

10/27/07

Religion and Wonder

Does religion create a sense of wonder, and does science destroy it? That's what Mark Vernon says today in The Guardian:

In the scientific age the intrinsic meaningfulness of the natural world is lost. We no longer interpret the thunder; we understand it - as massive discharges of electricity. It is still spectacular but no longer mysterious, let alone portentous. The world is a little less awesome, if also less fearsome, as a result.

However, this is not quite the end of the story. Wonder survives. But its nature depends on what you make of the limits of science. For some atheists modern science can ask all questions worth asking and find answers: there are still mysteries in the world, but they are more like puzzles that can and one day will be explained by natural processes.

The wonder that someone with such a belief might feel at these things could be said to be instrumental. It is similar to that which one feels when pondering a puzzle. The puzzle might amaze with its ingenuity, confound with its complexity, and leave one in awe of its subtle resolution. But ultimately this wonder fires a desire to unravel the mystery.

I think it's just, just possible that Vernon does not know what lurks in the minds of unreligious folk like....me. Let's have a case study!

I took the picture above during a trip to Alaska last summer. That ethereal mass rising up behind the dark mountains is Denali, "The Great One," the highest mountain in North America. I took the picture at sunset (at 11 pm!).

So what was I feeling? Of course--awe, amazement, mystery, enchantment. Was this just "instrumental wonder," the sense of having a new puzzle to solve? Did I want to go out and weigh, measure, experiment, explain...and get rid of the amazement?

For heaven's sake...of course not. Vernon's description comes from the stereotype of the crass, hyper-analytical scientist who rushes around trying to get everything under technical control... and feels nothing.

I'm not that sort of person. My unreligious science-oriented husband is not that sort of person. My unreligious father, who is a theoretical physicist, is not that sort of person.

I grew up in a house full of art and music, getting the ability to respond to the world nicely honed. We hiked in lots of mountains, visited lots of cathedrals and art museums. I was more likely to hear my father get worked up about an operatic aria than spout off facts and formulas.

Were we the exception? Now that I'm all grown up and read books, I can see from the likes of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins that science and wonder easily go together. I can read a book like Philosophers without Gods (Antony) and find out that many philosophers who don't believe enjoy feelings of awe and mystery.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I'll admit that while we were swept off our feet by the magical sight of Denali at sunset, a question did enter our minds. We wondered why clouds very often hover around the mountain top, obscuring it from view (and making our glimpse such a treat). Did our initial sense of awe and enchantment devolve into this mundane question and then disappear once we settled on an answer?

That construal is silly. It's a volley in some hyped up war between the religious and the unreligious. I'm not involved in any such war. I expect most people gazing at Denali at sunset feel roughly the same thing. Whether they do or don't believe in a supreme being is surely just completely beside the point.

* * *

A poem read atop Denali, July 28, 2002
At night, deep in the mountains,
I sit in meditation.
The affairs of men never reach here:
Everything is quiet and empty,
All the incense has been swallowed up by the endless night.
My robe has become a garment of dew.
Unable to sleep, I walk out into the woods--
Suddenly, above the highest peak, the full moon appears.

Daigu Ryokan, translated by John Stevens



10/25/07

Truth or Consequences?

A type of dilemma comes up over and over again. On one side there’s the value of pursuing, stating, or implementing “truth.” But on the other side there are the dangers of doing so. Maybe you watched that great game show when you were a kid—truth or consequences. That’s the dilemma, in a nutshell.

More today at Talking Philosophy

10/24/07

The Small Virtues

In a discussion at Talking Philosophy a few days ago there was some talk of the “small virtues.” It’s tricky coming up with examples. Punctuality seems like a small virtue, but then maybe it’s actually one of the less important expressions of a great virtue—respect. I made it to a meeting on time recently and while we waited for the others, everyone agreed that’s what punctuality is all about.

What punctuality amounts to varies a lot depending on the context and culture. According to an article in The Economist (so don’t blame me for the stereotype), “Punctuality is not a Latin American comparative advantage.” But I take it everywhere there is some limit on how late you can be. (Right?)

Marital fidelity was mentioned in that earlier discussion as a small virtue. Bill Clinton’s unfaithfulness was not a small matter to Hillary, I’m sure. “Small virtue…nonsense!” you can just hear her say. But better that in a president than other vices that play out in a big way on the world stage. Maybe it was cowardice that made Clinton stand by and do nothing during the slaughter in Rwanda. The opposite—being rash—seems to be part of what got us into the mess we’re in in Iraq.

Sense of humor seems like a small virtue, if it’s a virtue at all. Aristotle actually does list wit alongside “serious” virtues like courage and justice (which I’ve always found intriguing). How about neatness as a small virtue? And being a slob as a small vice?

Respect is a virtue that interests me a lot–especially the question of what it means to have it when you disagree strongly with another person. But I’d say it’s a big virtue, so will save the topic for another day!

10/21/07

Back to Alaska

No, that's not a giant pink marshmallow in the sky in the new header. It's Denali at 11 pm, just after sunset. The landscape seems just slightly "philosophical" (well, meditative) but not in the cliched manner of clouds, sunsets, and beaches. So maybe this header will stay for a while. It's a nice reminder of our trip to Alaska last summer. (I'm ready to go back...)

There was an interesting two-page ad in the New York Times today. The Templeton foundation asked scientists and religious thinkers whether the universe has a purpose. A couple said no, a couple maybe, and a plurality said yes. (All the answers are here.)

It's hard to know what to think of the Templeton people--their official agenda is to fund research on "big questions." That sounds good, but the underlying agenda is to fund a close nexus between science and religion. They are not necessarily interested in promoting "free inquiry," wherever it may lead. (Barbara Ehrenreich has a good article about the Templeton foundation here.)

Whatever the agenda, I have to say there were some interesting answers (e.g. from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who said No; and from Elie Wiesel, who said "I hope so").

10/17/07

Existentialism is a Humanism


The first work of philosophy I ever read is Jean Paul Sartre's article "Existentialism is a Humanism." That was a long time ago when I was a freshman in college, but I still like the article today. If you look at it carefully, you'll find much to criticize, but the article is full of good ideas.

The main point of it is that we are responsible for our own choices. You can't say you had to choose X because of....a book, a moral theory, a religious idea, an adviser, or even your feelings. You chose the book, the theory, the idea, the adviser, and you even chose how to interpret your own feelings.

What happens when you own up to your own responsibility? Sartre says you've got to see that you have a huge weight on your shoulders, because you choose for all, not just for yourself. Not literally, but "human nature" is something we're all continually fashioning. It's not "up there" in God's intentions or "in here" in our genes but continually created through our choices. If you lie, cheat, and steal, that's your contribution to what humankind amounts to. Are you sure you want that to be your contribution?

Once you own up to your responsibility, and admit the weight that's on your shoulders, then what? Here's where you might not be entirely satisfied with Sartre. He says you must "just choose." But it seems as if that's the point when you should actually think things through carefully, looking at the reasons for doing this or doing that. There might be better reasons for one option and worse reasons for the other.

I might admit my responsibility, and feel the weight on my shoulders, but "just choose" badly. Sartre has a famous example of a young man who's choosing between staying with his ailing mother and joining the resistance. All he can do, says Sartre, is...choose, in full awareness of his responsibility. But what if he were feeling pulled between staying with his ailing cat and joining the resistance? Or between running off to get rich in America and staying with his ailing mother?

By focusing on a particularly difficult dilemma, Sartre makes it seem as if every choice is basically a toss up. Not so. Sometimes the best reasons are on the side of one option, not the other. Still Sartre has a point--it's you who must sort out the reasons. We surely reason badly when we pretend that reasons fall out of the sky.

10/15/07

The Little Red Hen

I’m not sure it makes sense for kids to get all tied up in knots about the traditional problems of philosophy. I mean, do kids need to worry about whether they have free will? Whether they really know the world is “out there”? Whether morality is “absolute”?

But then, there are a lot of much less hair-raising questions that you can discuss with kids. They sometimes spring forth from children’s fiction. Here goes—some philosophy for kids.

You remember the Little Red Hen. She wanted to make some bread and she had a bunch of slacker friends, a dog, a cat, a pig.

“Who will help me pick the wheat?” she asked. “Not I,” said the dog. “Not I,” said the cat. "Not I," said the pig.

“Then I’ll do it,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.

Then she had to grind the wheat, and make the dough, and put it in the oven. The friends wouldn’t help her with anything.

When the bread was all done, she said “Who will help me eat the bread?” Now her friends started singing a different tune.

“I will,” said the dog. “I will,” said the cat. "I will," said the pig.

In a shocking turnaround, the Little Red Hen said. “I picked the wheat, I ground the wheat, I made the dough, etc. Now I will eat the bread.” And she did.

Question: Did the Little Red Hen do the right thing? Open for comments from kids and kids-at-heart, three and up.

Also at Talking Philosophy. Take the poll in the sidebar.

10/12/07

Just plain fun


My book explores all sorts of dimensions of the "well lived life" but I wonder from time to time whether I overplayed or underplayed some dimension. "What about fun?" I sometimes wonder. I explore mortality at great length, the importance of caring about the world beyond ourselves, and other "heavy" issues. But I admit there are very few lines about finger-painting, decorating cookies, jumping into piles of leaves, and the like.

Somebody might think I'm fun-challenged, but it's not true. Just yesterday, I actually had some fun! I was with my two kids at my daughter's violin lesson and her teacher, a very accomplished violinist, was playing a gorgeous piece for us. It happens her family has a pet bird and a tiny dog. Now, I don't mean some exotic bird like the one in my new header. I mean a little brown bird like you might see sitting on a branch outside your window. As she played, the little yapping dog chased the bird around the room. He flew every which way and finally took refuge on my head. It was fun, not to mention funny.

Do we have to have fun? Could a life be entirely good if it included lots of happiness, but no fun? Uh oh...maybe I really am fun-challenged, because now I've turned a moment of just plain fun into a serious question.

* * *

Speaking of fun, Mark Vernon wrote a nice review of my book in Church Times. He calls it "warm and lucidly written." I'm starting to think that quite possibly the book actually is lucid and warm, because Stephen Poole used the same adjectives in The Guardian. Now if someone would just say--"this book is really fun."

10/11/07

Back to the Future


Alright, so maybe animals have episodic memory (see earlier post)—thoughts about the past. Just maybe, we don’t know. But do they have the same sort of thoughts about the future?

This is where you actually see a lot of agreement. Daniel Gilbert starts his book Stumbling on Happiness by saying the human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.

Even Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, assumes animals don’t think about the future. To him, this is ethically significant. It’s bad to kill an animal and shut off its future, but worse to kill a human being who can anticipate and look forward to the future.

All that struck me as making sense for a long time. I can’t imagine my cats are making any plans for next week, and cows certainly don’t look as if they just can’t wait for tomorrow. But then in the wild many animals do prepare for the future. Birds migrate, beavers build dams, birds cache seeds, salmon swim upstream. They have ongoing projects that are left incomplete if they meet an untimely death.

more today at Talking Philosophy

10/10/07

Talking about Disabilities


The topic for my ethics class last night was living with disabilities. I have a chapter on the subject in my book and I just finished reading Jonathan Glover's very excellent Choosing Children, which deals with choosing or not choosing disabled children. There are lots of serious, difficult questions here. And then there's the question of how we talk about disabilities.

A friend of mine told me I had erred just a bit in my chapter by speaking of a woman who is "confined" to a wheelchair. The woman in question is Harriet McBryde Johnson, who wrote this splendid article in the New York Times magazine a few years ago. I stand corrected--the wheelchair, for her, is liberating.

Glover is very careful with his language. He quotes Dr. Tom Shakespeare, a sociologist "with achondroplasia", as saying "I'm happy the way I am. I would never have wanted to be different." That's the right way to say it: "with achondroplasia." We no longer call someone a "dwarf"--the word just has too much negative cultural baggage.

So there I go into my class ready to speak about everything in the correct way, and a student makes a great point about people "with achondroplasia," only she calls them "dwarves." I brought up the point that "dwarf" is the wrong word, and everyone simply laughed.

After a two-second reassessment, I decided it was a good idea to go with the flow. I mean, it really is clumsy having to work "with achondroplasia" into sentences. I mentioned "little people" as an alternative--and just got laughed at some more. That does seem like a bit of an "insider word," and frankly what "little people" means to me is kids.

It probably doesn't pay to get too hung about language. Harriet Johnson describes the uncomfortable reactions she gets from strangers. Whether it's just crude prejudice or some sort of biologically deep-seated anxiety, it's terribly sad that there's such a deep mote dividing people with and without disabilities. Each person either is or could be on the disabled side some day. If "normal" people (is that word allowed?) have to worry even about what words they use to describe disabilities, it can only make the nervousness and division worse.

But of course we need to have some sensitivity. Perfectly reasonable writers used to talk about "imbeciles," ""mongoloids," "mental defectives," and "cripples." Some words just have to be banished.

I think we do have a complicated set of unconscious thoughts about disability that we can get to know better by inspecting the way we speak. We say "the blind" and "the deaf" but not "the blue eyed." Surely that reflects the not very wise thought that blindness and deafness go to the very essence of people and separate them out virtually as a subspecies. It's not so important to stop using those phrases as to be aware of the underlying thinking, and correct it.

"The disabled" is another one of those bad phrases, suggesting a separate subspecies and a defining characteristic. I slipped up and used it once last night, but I think nobody noticed!

10/8/07

Time Travel


Philosophers and psychologists are forever casting about for some way of filling in the blank: “Humans are the only animals who can _________.” One view is that humans are the only animals who can “time travel”—in other words, we think about the past and the future, but no other animals do.

That sounds good, but you have to wonder. The Clark’s nutcracker buries pinyon seeds in the Grand Canyon in the fall (up to 33,000 per bird). After snowfall a few months later, they retrieve 90% of the seeds. But what’s going on here?

More today at Talking Philosophy

10/5/07

What I Learned


My son was home sick for two days this week, which turned out to be educational (for me). One day we watched Martha Stewart carving pumpkins on TV and she made an amazing point--if you cut the lid at the bottom instead of the top, you can put a candle on the ground and set the pumpkin on top of it. So much easier, no need to arrange candle inside of gooey pumpkin.

What I learned was...not that, but actually something about myself. I really am sort of a conservative. You have to carve the lid at the top of the pumpkin! If you don't, there won't be that nice little jagged line at the top, with candlelight showing through.

That's the way it's always been. Is she crazy?

The other thing I learned. My son has a thing about turning off all the lights in the house these days. Well, I did buy him Al Gore's book An Inconvenient Truth, so I've got to be pleased. There we were eating lunch in a dark room and I said "You know, it really is kind of gloomy with no lights on." He said "That's nothing compared to how gloomy it's going to be when the world comes to an end."

Hmm. My own ten year old kid is outdoing me at environmentalism. My ten year old daughter regularly outdoes me in the area of animal rights. For no principled reason, I eat fish but not meat. Now when we go shopping together, she makes speeches at the seafood counter. Most of the time I succumb to her good sense.

I heard a charming monologue on NPR recently by a man who said his son is smarter, more talented, better looking, and much nicer than he is. Only a parent can take so much delight in being outdone.

10/2/07

Getting Knocked Up

I’m happy to note that my article "The Mommy Wars and The Good Life” is at The Mothers Movement Online as of today. The point of it is to look at the decision to stay home with children in a positive but not worshipful light. We don’t all have to stay home. But for some people, “the good life” really is with their children.

It does seem important to drop breadcrumbs along the way. Kids grow up, and quickly. There’s a lot you can do for a two year old, but by the time kids are ten (like both of mine), there’s plenty of time for other things.*

I’d love to see the world make the trip back to work a little easier, but mothers are often honored more than respected. As in—isn’t it wonderful, but let’s find somebody more competent to fill the job.

The article was also excerpted recently in a very neat magazine called CafĂ© Philosophy in Auckland, New Zealand where it got a new title (“Getting Knocked Up”) and a sexy accompanying picture. Very zingy!

The picture above is from the cover of the magazine. My question for the graphic designer—shouldn’t the earth be stuck in the cup southern hemisphere upwards? But what do I know about New Zealand sensibilities?

* 10:55 a.m. So why is it that both my kids wound up staying home sick today? Why are they sitting here telling Halloween jokes and making it hard for me to concentrate? The Great Mother seems to be punishing me for writing this sentence earlier today.

10/1/07

What's your story?

At Talking Philosophy today--

I loved a feature that was in the 2nd quarter issue [of The Philosopher's Magazine]—a group of autobiographical essays called “Becoming a Philosopher”. I often wonder how people wind up where they do. And not just philosophers, of course. Somebody starts a business selling washing machine parts. Why?

I loved the series because philosophers so often pretend to be disembodied souls just peering into the universe. Telling your story is definitely forbidden in the highest reaches of the ivory tower—like the most prestigious philosophy journals.

But it’s not unheard of. I’m reading the book Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and Secular Life, edited by Louise Antony, and it’s full of life stories. Louise (I know her from way back…) asked authors to talk about not just their non-belief, but how it grew within their lives and what role it plays.

more here