March 31, 2012

1. Bookstore Talk

In the last issue, I mentioned that I was giving a talk at a local bookstore on March 10. I felt that I had some persuasive arguments, or at least some interesting viewpoints, but I had no sooner opened my mouth than some hardened skeptics in the audience began raising objections. For example, if I said, “when a man dies and his clock stops at the same time...” they would say, “but what about all the clocks that don’t stop when their owner dies?” If I said, “A mother in California often senses when her child in Boston is in a car accident, or falls downstairs...” they would say, “What about all the times when telepathic communication doesn’t occur?”

My view is that if an occult phenomenon occurs once, once in the whole history of the world, that shows it’s possible, but the skeptics seemed to think that if they didn’t occur once, then that cast doubt on all occult phenomena. But despite the skeptics’ objections, we had a lively discussion, and the few people who came seemed glad they had come. I didn’t do much reading from my books; perhaps I should have read a bit myself, and later asked someone else to read.

One person at the discussion told the following story: Before his retirement, he had been a pilot. One day, as he was flying on auto-pilot, he began day-dreaming about what he would do if the auto-pilot system suddenly sent the plane into a dive. About an hour later, the auto-pilot system suddenly sent the plane into a dive, and he had to respond to a real problem instead of an imaginary problem. Could his daydream have been prophetic, an anticipation of the future?

I told a story about my neighbor. One day, he was walking in the woods with his grandson. He said to his grandson, “We’ve walked here many times, but we’ve never seen antlers. There are deer around, and there must be antlers around, but we’ve never seen any.” A moment later, his grandson said, “Look, Grandpa! Antlers!” Why did my neighbor speak about antlers just before his grandson found them? Is this more than a coincidence? Did my neighbor anticipate the future, anticipate encountering antlers?

Arthur Koestler said,

Coincidence may be described as the chance encounter of two unrelated causal chains which — miraculously, it seems — merge into a significant event. It provides the neatest paradigm of the bisociation of previously separate contexts, engineered by fate. Coincidences are puns of destiny. In the pun, two strings of thought are tangled into one acoustic knot; in the coincidental happening, two strings of events are knitted together by invisible hands.

2. Philosophy By Another Name

The New York Times website has been running a series of articles by “contemporary philosophers”; they call the series “The Stone.” A recent article by Colin McGinn argues that philosophy should be re-named “ontics” because what academic philosophers do isn’t accurately described by the term “philosophy.” McGinn writes thus:

To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.... It is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science.... We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture.... Most of the marks of science as commonly understood are shared by academic philosophy: the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world.... We may as well recognize that we are a science.... I have toyed with many new names, but the one that I think works best is “ontics”.... It emphasizes that our primary concern is the general nature of being.1

In response to McGinn’s piece, there were numerous comments from readers, and a lively debate about the nature of philosophy:

At least both sides might now agree on who the real philosophers are: they are those who are concerned with the human, who still identify with the tradition of Plato, and who feel no need to share in the prestige of science.... Philosophy is essentially persuasive.... Folks like McGinn have drifted away from traditional philosophy. I’d be happy to see them use a different label. But I would not support their funding, especially at the expense of teaching traditional philosophy.(Gabe Eisenstein)

If academic philosophers feel they exist in too rarefied a realm to bother with the human question of how to best live one’s life then, by all means, choose a new name.(Rydal)

The reason so many philosophers in The Stone are so keen on trying to convince us that they’re actually scientists is the prestige of the sciences today. Even the US President touts the sciences as the key to “winning the future” while the humanities are treated as an idle luxury.(Adam)

Be careful what you wish for! Philosophy is already considered by many to be a marginal and self-indulgent discipline, with little real-world utility. If you succeed in detaching Philosophy from its ancient and prestigious moniker, what guarantee do you have that the world will follow you to whatever new one you have chosen? It may just lose interest entirely!(JohnB)

I like Prof. McGinn’s proposal to change Philosophy (in academia) to Ontics. Once that change is made, then a new department can be created called Philosophy, for people who work within the tradition of Nietzsche, Thoreau, Montaigne, etc. Once that new department is going, then the Ontics department can be closed, because few people are interested in that stuff, and it has little impact on people’s lives, little impact on the world. Then we’ll be back where we started: with one department called Philosophy, the difference being that Philosophy will be filled, not with people who are interested in math and logic, but with people who are interested in life and human beings.(JimH (me))

Philosophy... is LIFE. Science is specific.(donika gjoka)

McGinn responded to the responses:

The general reaction to my original essay from people not professionally involved in philosophy rather proves my point about the need for linguistic reform. There is precious little understanding of what the subject is really like, but a lot of opinion about its demerits and betrayals of its historical ideals. To be sure, we will not cure such ignorance and hostility — either from the dogmatists of empirical science or the disappointed fringe mystics — by simply relabeling the subject.

In my view, the phrase “professional philosopher” is an oxymoron. Real philosophers — like Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Montaigne — aren’t professionals, and the professionals aren’t real philosophers.

3. “The Evolution of Despair”

The local GreatBooks group recently discussed an essay by Robert Wright called “The Evolution of Despair.”2 It’s a readable, interesting, witty piece. It was originally published in Time magazine; Wright works for Time and other publications. The essay deals with Evolutionary Psychology, that is, the evolution of feelings like sympathy, hostility, sadness, greed, etc. Wright wrote a popular book on Evolutionary Psychology called The Moral Animal (1994). The essay also deals with the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon, that is, the decline of communal activities, neighborhood activities, in modern America. The essay asks, Has our isolation made us depressed, suicidal? Were we designed, by evolution, to be more social? Hence the title of the essay: “The Evolution of Despair.”

According to Wright, the Darwinian struggle for survival doesn’t foster brutality:

Because social cooperation improves the chances of survival, natural selection imbued our minds with an infrastructure for friendship, including affection, gratitude and trust. (In technical terms, this is the machinery for “reciprocal altruism.”) And the fact that offspring carry our genes into posterity accounts for the immense joy of parental love.

We’re social animals, and our prehistoric ancestors, whose lifestyles were more social than ours, were probably happier than we are. “When a Western anthropologist tried to study depression among the Kaluli of New Guinea, he couldn’t find any.”

In our society, on the other hand, depression seems to be on the rise.

Rates of depression have been doubling in some industrial countries roughly every 10 years. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among young adults in North America, after car wrecks. Fifteen percent of Americans have had a clinical anxiety disorder. And pathological, even murderous alienation is a hallmark of our time.

Wright says that isolation is especially common in suburbs. The city-dweller is likely to know his neighbors, but in the suburbs, “thanks to electric garage-door openers, you can drive straight into your house, never risking contact with a neighbor.” Isolation is especially painful for the suburban housewife, alone with children. Wright says that modern feminism was a response to the suburbanization of the 1950’s. And the problem isn’t solved if the mother gets a job; Wright says it’s unnatural for a mother to be separated from her children for ten hours a day, so he recommends workplace-based child-care. He notes that, in primitive societies, “child care is a mostly public task — extremely social, even communal,” hence a mother isn’t isolated. He notes that, among aborigines, “it was common for a woman to breast-feed her neighbor’s child while the neighbor gathered food.”

The automobile encouraged the rise of suburbs, and suburban isolation. Wright notes that, when Henry Ford was in his 60’s, he built “a replica of his hometown — gravel roads, gas lamps — to recapture the ‘saner and sweeter idea of life’ he had helped destroy.”

Wright mentions a book called The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues Of Community In America, by Alan Ehrenhalt. Ehrenhalt is now publishing a book called The Great Inversion, which argues that the flight to the suburbs has become a flight to the cities, and “central cities increasingly are where the affluent want to live.”

Wright also mentions a book called Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, by Francis Fukuyama. Wright says that, in 1960, 58% of Americans felt they could trust most people, but in 1993, only 37% were trusting, so trust has declined as isolation has increased.

And Wright mentions a book called Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, which discusses the demise of social forms of entertainment, like bowling leagues, and the rise of unsocial forms of entertainment, like TV. “When you’re watching TV 28 hours a week — as the average American does — that’s a lot of bonding you’re not out doing.” Wright notes that the Internet may be a social form of entertainment — at least, more social than TV.

Wright doesn’t consider whether a religion, or a philosophy, can make people happier, less prone to depression and suicide. Are people depressed because they’re isolated, or because they don’t have a worldview that makes the world seem hospitable, friendly? A 19th-century poet said,

God’s in His heaven —
All’s right with the world!

But what if God isn’t in His heaven, and all isn’t right with the world? Do atheism and materialism foster depression? Are unbelievers more suicide-prone than believers? The Philosophy of Today tries to construct an optimistic worldview without traditional monotheism. Wright doesn’t consider the role of philosophy in depression.

4. Miscellaneous

A. An interesting piece by David Brooks in the New York Times. Brooks says that “over the past three decades, the Arab world has undergone a little noticed demographic implosion. Arab adults are having many fewer kids.” This demographic implosion isn’t happening only in the Arab world. “If you look around the world, you see many other nations facing demographic headwinds. If the 20th century was the century of the population explosion, the 21st century... is looking like the century of the fertility implosion.” In many countries, populations are aging, and the number of young people is declining. “For decades, people took dynamism and economic growth for granted and saw population growth as a problem. Now we’ve gone to the other extreme, and it’s clear that young people are the scarce resource.”

B. In an earlier issue, I mentioned Curriki, a website that provides teachers with free learning materials, free courses. You could use Curriki to learn on your own, or teach your children. A similar site is Khan Academy, which uses YouTube videos to teach a variety of subjects.

C. “I know she has some interest in me.” “How do you know?” “Because I dreamed of her. Dreams are often two-person things, shared things; in a case like this, one might say, ‘we dreamed’ instead of ‘I dreamed.’ When her image was in my head, I could tell that my image was in her head, I could feel that this dream was a shared thing.”

5. Movies

A. Saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s quite popular with critics and with the public. I found it amusing and entertaining, though not a great movie, not an artistic whole. Allen creates good pieces, but not a good whole. The protagonist is an American writer visiting Paris in 2010, and he finds himself transported back in time to 1920’s Paris, where he meets the writers he admires — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc.

B. Saw a film called Crumb (1994), an acclaimed non-fiction film about the cartoonist Robert Crumb, whose Kafka illustrations I praised in an earlier issue. I didn’t enjoy the film, and don’t recommend it. The film focuses on Crumb’s family, especially his brothers, as well as Crumb himself. All three Crumb brothers were quirky, even disturbed; Robert’s older brother, Charles, committed suicide, while his younger brother, Maxon, is epileptic. Robert is the most stable and successful of the brothers. (Was it easier to be the “middle boy,” rather than the eldest or youngest?) All three brothers had artistic talent. Their father, an ex-Marine, treated the boys harshly; Robert says that his father beat Charles “unmercifully,” broke Robert’s collarbone, etc. Robert was born in Philadelphia in 1943, moved to San Francisco in 1967, then moved to France with his wife and daughter in 1993; he still lives in France.

C. I saw The Hurt Locker, which won Best Picture for 2009. It’s about the Iraq War — about a 3-man American team whose mission is to defuse bombs. It’s full of tension; I found it stressful to watch, and don’t recommend it.

© L. James Hammond 2012
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1. March 4, 2012, 3:15 pm, “Philosophy by Another Name” back
2. Originally published in Time magazine, August 28, 1995 back