We Like Sheep?

I’ve been playing Handel’s Messiah a lot lately. My two 10-year-olds have been suffering terribly over this. It's not just bad music, in their ears, it’s hideous.

Which brings to mind an interesting question. What is an “acquired taste”? It seems odd that something as seemingly thought-free as what something tastes like or sounds like can evolve over time.

The Messiah really sounds awful to my kids, but someday I bet they’ll like it. Wine is an unfathomable thing to them. Is it actually going to taste different to them in 10 years? Coffee is another example. What—does it actually taste different in older mouths?

Then again, some people never come to like wine or coffee or vocal music. Are they immature?

Oh, about the sheep. Another acquired taste? Happy Holidays!


What Becomes a Monday Most?

Answer: A nice book review in the Waikato Times (New Zealand)--

Deep thinking, yet not too weighty

The Weight Of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life, by Jean Kazez (Blackwell Publishing $32.99). Reviewed by Peter Dornauf.

From Aristotle's plea for rational moderation to Tolstoy seeking solace in religion and Nietzsche's scorn of the same, Jean Kazez (a PhD in philosophy) tracks an erudite pathway through and around the question of what it means to live the good life.

The Weight of Things is no flabby self-help manual with pat paperback answers, but nor is it an impenetrable, high-minded, dry philosophical discourse. Here's a book that confronts the perennial questions in an engaging manner that does not disrespect our intelligence.

Kazez manages, with apposite anecdotes and critical analysis, to speak to the general reading public without pomposity, yet several steps above those "how to" and "inspirational" reads.

She can, for example, sum up a philosophical position in a few apt words.

What, for instance, was the essential contribution of 20th-century existentialism in addressing the question of how to live? Kazez' astute reply is helping us to get by with a more honest acceptance of the human condition.

The human condition gives us the problem of mortality, and Kazez then examines the quandary of transience via Tolstoy and Plato. The latter, she points out, would have made a lousy grief counsellor (his theories were too abstract) while Tolstoy, for her part, put too great a store on transcendence in providing meaning and comfort. She would prefer the deluxe model of the world, but knows that it's plain, yet "plainly marvellous".

Her brief for the good life covers various qualities like happiness, autonomy, self expression and morality, but she's quick to point out the complexities associated with these elements. Ethics itself can be a tricky business. The Bible, for one, says nothing against slavery. Stoical detachment can be useful, but can only take us so far. Hedonism goes head to head with Epicureanism, but suffering can also be a valuable ingredient.

This is readable philosophy and an intelligent book that provides a wealth of insight without avoiding the conundrums and ambiguities associated with the questions it raises.

Peter Dornauf is a Hamilton artist, writer and teacher.

My only question is, when can I go...to the area where the paper is published? This is what a website says about it:
The Waikato region, located on the western side of New Zealand’s North Island, is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations, with its unspoilt beaches, lush forests, hot springs and ancient underground glow-worm caves providing a unique and beautiful adventure experience.
I read about those glow-worm caves in a wonderful discussion of the meaning of life by Richard Taylor. I thought it was a completely obscure reference. Shows what I know. How are we like the glow worms? You'll have to read Taylor if you want to find out (the essay is in the excellent anthology The Meaning of Life, edited by Klemke and Cahn).

The picture at the top of this post. Glow worms on the walls of Waitomo Cave.


Hitchens on Hanukah

It's the last night of Hanukah. The nine candles on the menorah are burning brightly. We've had multiple celebrations over the last 8 days, with latkes, parties, gelt, presents. And then I discover this. Christopher Hitchens calls Hanukah an "explicit celebration of the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason."

I had thought Hanukah was about the Jews of the 2nd century bc holding their own against their persecutors, but according to Hitchens, they weren't just holding their own, but quashing a sect of Hellenized Jews. And what, asks Hitchens, was so bad about being Hellenized? The Greeks were the "culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes." This was naturally appealing, by contrast with "the grim old routines of the Torah."

As far as I'm concerned, Hanukah is about...well, it's really about holding your own in a "Christian country" (as some call it). It's the un-Christmas. And it's, well, lots of fun. I could swear I read somewhere that Hitchens has a Jewish wife and they sort of slightly celebrate Jewish holidays with their kids. Would it really be so bad??!

Dec. 12

I was going to say more about this, but now I don't have to because Daniel Radosh says it all so perfectly here.


In Living Color

After six months, why not a name for this blog, aside from my own? Remember when color TV was a novelty? Every show (just on NBC?) was "brought to you in living color" by the sponsor. My blog (and my book) are about philosophical questions that can seem dry and abstract. But they're questions about the way we live and I try to discuss them with color. Thus...the blog is..."In Living Color." Hey, I kind of like it.

The Golden Compass

I keep reading that the movie The Golden Compass suppresses the anti-religious message in Phillip Pullman's books, but the movie has plenty of punch, besides being full of stunning imagery and good acting. I thought it was great (and now I need to read the books).

Free-thinking Lord Asrial is trying to discover the truth about dust, a mysterious substance that travels to other universes. The church, or magisterium, tries to use its authority to suppress his research. It turns out they're got a scheme to separate children from their daemons, the animals that accompany them everywhere as their souls. That way, the children won't be affected by the dust, which can make them question authority. Lyra, Lord Asrial's niece, joins the side of the truth seekers, with the help of an alethiometer, a device that measures the truth. There are children to be saved at the North Pole...

A moviegoer could come away thinking Pullman is for witches and demons and multipe universes, talking polar bears and mysterious dust. The movie's real theme, though, is truth.

More today at Talking Philosophy


Small Earth

Let’s have some more philosophy for kids. The last installment of this occasional series was for age 3 and up. This is for age 8 and up. Here goes:

A while back we read the Borrowers books as a family, and I got to thinking about the little people who live under the floorboards. They seem to be exactly like us, but just very very small. Here’s the question–What if there really were such tiny people? Would we treat them as equals? Would we make friends with them, let them vote, allow them into our schools? Would we accomodate them with special little chairs and desks and tiny pencils?

More today at Talking Philosophy.


Reading about Evil

I've read a lot about atrocities in the last year, and I'm struck by the difference between the different genres that deal with them. The most miserable way to read about atrocities is to pick up a straightforward work of non-fiction. I'm currently reading Holocaust: A History by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt. It's extremely well-written and informative, but so painful! Since it's a chronicle of events starting with the precursors of the Holocaust, the trajectory of the book can't be anything but consistently downhill.

The other books I've read recently avoid this trajectory, even when they deal with terrible events. For example, the superb novel What is the What, by Dave Eggers, tells the gruesome true story of a small boy's exodus from war torn southern Sudan. Passages in the book are more heartbreaking than you can imagine, but you know from the beginning this is a book about a survivor.

The same is true of memoirs by Holocaust survivors. Night, by Elie Wiesel, is heartbreaking and shocking, but the reader knows all along that Wiesel will be alive at the end of the book. You read your way into total darkness ("night"), knowing there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Novelists can deliberately take you on an up and down journey, but even the most pitiless writer has some compassion for the reader! A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, is a very painful portrait of life for lower caste Indians, but it's not a complete and total descent into hell. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is an excruciating 9/11 book, but still amusing in places.

The difference between the Holocaust history and all these other books, if you had to narrow it down to one thing, is the writer's perspective. A comprehensive, birds-eye perspective of the Holocaust can't fail to be utterly depressing. A survivor's perspective is another matter. And a storyteller's perspective is usually yet another--a good story is never all one color. Sadly enough, it just doesn't make sense to always pick the easier-to-take book. If you want to read a history of the Holocaust, Dwork and Van Pelt have written a really good one.


Never Let Me Go

I have a Writer’s Choice essay at Normblog today, I’m happy to report. It’s about the novel Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. (I also had a profile at Normblog not long ago.)

More today at Talking Philosophy.


The Holocaust and the Problem of Evil

I just spent a few days in Washington D.C., mainly visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum. What an amazing place--both extremely informative and extremely horrifying. Before going, I read Elie Wiesel's memoir of surviving the Holocaust, Night. From a philosophical perspective it's an especially interesting book because of the way Wiesel's experiences lead him to thoughts about God.

I went through the museum thinking a lot about Wiesel and people like him. Distant relatives of mine were also pious Jews in Eastern Europe. So I walked through the museum thinking about them, and about their religious outlook.

Before the Nazis arrive, Wiesel is a devout 15 year old boy studying the Torah and Kabalah. His piety is smashed out of him by the horrific things he soon witnesses and experiences. The Holocaust Museum puts these things on display with total candor. (Wiesel was one of the founders of the museum.)

On the floor devoted to the "Final Solution" the museum displays live footage of the "mobile killing units" that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Soviet Union. The museum has tastefully hidden video monitors behind high walls, so the visitor can choose to look or not look. I made myself look at Jewish men, women and children lining up naked next to a long, deep ditch of naked corpses, being shot, and toppling over into the pile.

Wiesel's stance is not exactly disbelief, but close to it. Hitler kills his parents and his sister, but also undermines his faith. Sometimes he seems to express anger at God, sometimes outright non-belief. But the constant is that he thinks there's no explanation why God permitted the Holocaust.

I think it ought to be a rule that no one should be allowed to debate the so-called "problem of evil" without first spending 2-3 hours in the Holocaust Museum. Not that 2-3 hours immersed in another genocide (Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia) won't do, but the Holocaust Museum does such an incredible job of putting all the facts on display.

Let's see--a good God was watching over this depravity and could have stopped it, but treasured the free will of the perpetrators too much to do so. That might fly if you're sipping tea in a philosophy lounge somewhere, but just doesn't make sense as you watch that video behind the wall. Um, what about the victims? Did torture and then death just maybe limit their free will?

Then there's the silliness about how God allowed six million deaths because of all the virtue that was prompted as a result. The Holocaust Museum doesn't try to sugarcoat anything. We all know of the heroism of a small number of people who responded to these atrocities, but the museum makes it clear the heroes were in a very small minority. Mostly the world just stood by and watched.

Then we get the Christian-flavored story about how the suffering of the Jews gave rise to the "resurrection"--the redemptive creation of the nation of Israel. But would we really see Israel's existence as such a great good if it hadn't become necessary as an outcome of the Holocaust?

The Holocaust Museum obliterates facile stories about why God must permit evil. But then, I'd also recommend the trip to anyone who thinks the problem of evil is a one-way ticket to atheism. It fascinates me the way Elie Wiesel comes so close to saying flatly there is no God, but never quite says it. The Jews of Eastern Europe found joy and cohesion in their religious experience. Can I really say the survivors should have allowed Hitler to claim their parents and children and friends and their faith as well?

Again, there's the philosophy lounge answer--yes. The problem of evil is insuperable. There can be no God. Then there's the answer that people come to from their own personal experience. Elie Wiesel's writing is full of tension. Belief is impossible for him, but non-belief is impossible. There's no easily-defined religious outlook that can entirely satisfy him.

I came out of the museum with an armful of books, including one about Elie Wiesel and theology, but if I understand him correctly, his stance is one I have to respect.

* *

On a lighter but still-Jewish note: I discovered a cool website by reading Normblog today.


They Fought for our Freedom

I got an inside look at American patriotism when I went to a Veteran’s Day program at my kids’ elementary school last week. The school had invited family members who served in the armed forces to attend and be honored and other parents (like me) to join in.

The most moving part of the program consisted of all the 5th graders singing a medley of armed forces songs. At different points signs were held up (“Marines,” “Army,” etc.) and veterans stood up to be applauded. There were World War II veterans in wheelchairs, veterans of the Vietnam War, and veterans of the first gulf war. Maybe also veterans back from the Iraq war too, but I don’t know.

There was something touching about the juxtaposition of children’s voices and the men (and a few women) slowly rising to their feet. These people had put their lives on the line for their country, and I’m all for honoring them. I clapped enthusiastically and yes, got teary eyed like everyone else.

I bet you can hear it coming…I’m about to spoil this post with a “but”. Sorry, can’t help it. All the 5th grades had written poems and some of them were read out loud. The winning poems had certain common themes, one being the idea that veterans are people who fight for our freedom.

It would be hard to make a case that the veterans of the last three wars (Iraq, the gulf war, Vietnam) were fighting for our freedom. World War II veterans really did, I think. You might be able to force the Vietnam war into that mold if you tried hard enough. But the first gulf war and the current war in Iraq?

While I sat there clapping wildly and tearing up, I just couldn’t stop my mind from turning over a few thoughts about patriotic gatherings in other places. What would I hear if I were at an assembly at an Iranian school, for example? Probably something Americans would dismiss as propaganda. The problem is that once you get into the propaganda business, it’s hard to say your propaganda is OK, and someone else’s has gone too far.

I went home from the gathering wondering what would be a better way of explaining what veterans do. The message needs to be suitable for kids age 5 to 11. I think it ought to honor these men and women. But (I submit) it needs to be true. How about, simply--the veterans risked their lives for our country? My radical thought for today: we really do need to teach kids the truth. Simplified so it’s age appropriate, but still, the truth.


Is Blogging Good for the Soul?

Long lost section from the Summa Technologiae today at Talking Philosophy.


Anthony Flew's Conversion

The lowest form of debate is one where both sides cite luminaries who take their position. You're an atheist, so you go on and on about how Einstein was an atheist, how Mother Teresa was full of doubt, how Lance Armstrong calls himself at least an agnostic. You're a theist, so you seize on stories of famous atheists who converted to theism, or famous scientists who believe.

Naturally, I'm completely beyond such nonsense. Er, well, almost. As a non-believer, it does kind of bug me seeing the title of the new book by long-time atheist Anthony Flew--There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. But I'm happy to report this week is getting off to a fun start. There's a priceless article in the New York Times magazine today about how Flew's book was written. He wasn't quite tortured by evangelicals, but the journalist makes a very convincing case he didn't write the book.

Now, you might say, what does it matter who really wrote it? The important thing is the arguments! But of course to the intelligent design crowd behind the book, Flew's name on the cover has all the importance in the world. Apparently they've been courting him for 20 years.

If the journalist is right, the book was doubly ghost written--mainly by Roy Abraham Varghese (who is listed as a co-author), a guy without academic credentials who runs an intelligent design foundation in Dallas. And secondarily, to make it read better, by an evangelical pastor hired by HarperOne.

It's not that Flew hasn't decided to embrace a very minimalist belief system--"Aristotelian Deism," as he calls it--but that you can't take the argumentation in the book seriously as his own. The journalist says what's in the book is standard intelligent design fare, and little that comes distinctly and originally from Flew.

Buyer beware.


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


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


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


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!


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").


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.


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.


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."


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


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!


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


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.


More about faith

Are we lucky to be alive? Thoughts about this question and faith today at Talking Philosophy.


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.


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


The Sacred

I took this from normblog, who got it from "SC", but it's by the neurologist Oliver Sacks:
Music doesn't represent any tangible, earthly reality. It represents things of the heart, feelings which are beyond description, beyond any experience one has had. The non-representational but indescribably vivid emotional quality is such as to make one think of an immaterial or spiritual world. I dislike both of those words, because for me, the so-called immaterial and spiritual is always vested in the fleshly - in "the holy and glorious flesh," as Dante said.

So if music is not directly representative of the world around us, then what's inspiring it? One has the feeling of the muse, and the muses are heavenly beings... I can't avoid that feeling myself when I listen to Mozart...

I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music.

This goes into the file "thoughts, feelings, and cognitive processes that make believers and unbelievers similar to each other." I'll just say--I like Oliver Sacks.



Sometimes when I get embroiled in a debate on the internet (which lately is often, due to my new gig at Talking Philosophy) I look up from time to time and think “are these real people or virtual people?” It’s like I’m talking to three dimensional people in a room, but then the vividness dissipates.

If we were all in the same room together, the conversation wouldn’t go the same way. There would be couplings based on factors that are invisible here. That’s one of the charms of the internet. In real life, two people would talk because they’re the same age, they’re attracted to each other, style cues draw them together, and the like. Here we don’t have those distractions.

Here’s my question. When we converse on the internet, should we think of others as real people—as if we actually were sitting in a room. Or is etiquette here different from normal etiquette?

Some people on the internet obviously think it’s different. People will say things on a blog they would never say in real life. For example, this week someone responded to a post of mine by saying:

Good grief, Ms. Kazez. I know you postmodern philosophers hate science, but you might try to investigate the field at least a little bit.

That vacuous, ill-reasoned nonsense such as this post is considered acceptable work in professional, academic philosophy is the #1 reason I’ve quit blogging.

Maybe that’s OK. Arguably the break from social conventions is part of the fun.

And maybe there's some benefit to internet rudeness. Who knows, if this commenter didn't get to eviscerate me on the internet, he might run into the street yelling his head off and stabbing people.

Or you could say no. Anything you say here does affect some real, flesh and blood person out in the world. No actual guts get spilled, but the normal rules of interaction ought to be in effect. Be patient, be respectful, listen…all that good stuff.

I admit to an unprincipled position. In any interaction involving me, let politeness reign. If two other people want to act like savages with each other, I actually find if fairly amusing.

p.s. Mark Vernon has a good post about social networking sites today.


Why Me?

Why are we interested in the things we are interested in? The painting above is my mother's and she's got lots more animal art (and other art) here. Is it nature or nurture or coincidence?!

Insect Minds

One of the most reviled views in the history of philosophy is Descartes’ view that animals are mere machines. The relevant texts are a trifle ambiguous, but he does seem to say that animals have no conscious life whatsoever. Your cat jumps off the couch and approaches his food because of signals in his brain, but without visual images or sensations of hunger. If it would give you pleasure to kick the cat, there’s no reason to hold back, so far as any feelings of pain are concerned.

I’ve always considered this staggeringly absurd. So it came as a surprise when I realized, a while back, that I’ve always been a bit of a Cartesian myself. I’ve always regarded insects and spiders (and especially cockroaches) as little mechanical creatures without conscious awareness.

I started seeing them differently all because of the film Microcosmos, which uses microcameras to capture the world of insects, spiders and other small creatures (you tube clip). In the movie, you can watch a beetle astutely roll a ball of dung up a hill; leaf ants carrying bits of leaves back to the colony; aphids being milked by ants, all super close-up. Continued at Talking Philosophy.

p.s. A late-breaking comment yesterday made me laugh.


The Meaning of Life

Anthony Kronman writes in the Boston Globe (9/16), hand-wringingly:
In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of young men and women have begun their college careers. They have worked hard to get there. A letter of admission to one of the country's selective colleges or universities has become the most sought-after prize in America.

The students who have won this prize are about to enter an academic environment richer than any they have known. They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for.

In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction - a disturbing and dangerous development.

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life's meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

It's a shame Mr. Kronman didn't do a google search on college courses about the meaning of life. If he had, he would have discovered mine, aptly named "The Meaning of Life". It is precisely about "what we should care about and why."

I suspect this article may have been written a priori. As in--aren't we a crass and consumerist society? And don't all these kids go to school and learn nothing deep? And mustn't it be true that nobody's teaching anything profound any more?

It sounds right but I think it isn't true. There are philosophy departments everywhere, and lots of courses on ethics, and even courses on the good life, or the meaning of life, or ultimate values. Google "the meaning of life" and "syllabus" and you'll find plenty of "meaning of life" classes, including mine. Sheesh!

Thanks to enigman for the reference.

Secular Humanism

In a couple of weeks I''ll be going to listen to an interfaith panel discuss the genocide in Darfur. The panel will include a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. There's no room at that table for anyone who doesn't believe in God.

That seems just a little unfair. It's interesting to see how different faiths regard that problem. But this isn't just an exercise in comparative religion. The panel is being convened because allegedly these religious leaders have a special ability to guide us on moral matters. And people who don't believe in God have less of an ability?

We shouldn't buy into that. The question is how an un-believer could get a seat at such a table. Well, why not just empanel a sagacious ethicist? But then ethics is not religion. This is an interfaith panel.

An unbeliever can only get a seat at the table if he or she represents a way of thinking that's at least quasi-religious. This would have to be someone who affirms a set of values, who has some conception of how people ought to live and treat each other. (Plus, I suppose, a lot of followers.) I think Paul Kurtz, the "secular humanist" founder of the magazine Free Inquiry, could do the job. (See here for what secular humanists believe.)

Atheism is a big tent, with people of all sorts standing under it. The vocal, antagonistic crowd, like Dawkins and Harris, are smart and energizing. But the "kinder, gentler" secular humanists are rather important as emissaries to the world. They have a chance on that panel, and Dawkins and Harris don't.

The secular humanists could link up with Unitarians, liberal Jewish congregations, liberal Christians and others who share their political and ethical vision. Atheists, by contrast, are just all the people who disbelieve, from Karl Rove (!) to Larry Flynt.

I don't think I can actually call myself a secular humanist--I'd have to be excluded from the panel because at best I can call myself an ethicist. The way I look at ethics isn't the way secular humanists do. But I think those folks should be encouraged. In fact, I'm going to go buy a copy of Paul Kurtz's magazine today. (Ahem...I have an article in the current issue.)


About Faith

It seems to me the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc.) are too hard on “faith”—believing without evidence. If you believe in God without thinking you have a proof of his existence, or even a reasonably good argument, then your belief is a matter of faith. Should anybody take you to task for that? I think not.

A person who was willing to believe nothing “on faith” would have a rather scanty store of beliefs. He or she would be missing some beliefs I take to be very important.

There's more at Talking Philosophy-- here.

The Out Campaign

So what about Richard Dawkins' "Coming Out" Campaign? Here's a passage from the website:

Atheists are far more numerous than most people realize. COME OUT of the closet! You'll feel liberated, and your example will encourage others to COME OUT too. (Don't "out" anybody else, wait for them to OUT themselves when they are ready to do so).
Basically, I like the idea. Why should atheists spend their lives hiding in the shadows? I've blogged about this before.

But here's my question for Mr. Dawkins: what's with that font? I like the jaunty little kick on the right flank. But the elongated left flank is, well, it's obnoxious. It says "I'm an atheist, wanna make something of it?" There's much debate on blogs about whether Dawkins is too militant, and I'm inclined to be on his side, but that font says "militant."

For my line of atheist T-shirts, I'm choosing something simple. How about:

It's still scarlet (yes, I get it, this is the scarlet letter). But there's no strutting. The simple Arial font doesn't suggest I'm reving up for a fight.

Being an afficionado of fonts, I actually think this is important. But moving right along...I do think it's important not to attach any absolute value to coming out. It's not always a good thing to do it.

Here are some situations in which I wouldn't wear even my own subdued Arial font line of atheist T-shirts--

1. I am campaigning door-to-door for a presidential candidate in 2008. Why risk alienating my comrades or the people I am trying to convince? (We really do need someone new in 2008, and it's not Mitt Romney.)

2. I am working on an interfaith project aimed at stopping the genocide in Darfur. The "A" will invite questions, create the opposite of solidarity, distract from the common ground I share with the other participants. (Get real! Lives are at stake!)

3. I am joining my husband's family to celebrate Christmas. They are a remarkably heathenish lot, except for one person.

4. I am giving a talk on a philosophical topic that has nothing to do with religion. To get the audience on board with my train of thought, I want them to focus on thoughts and experiences we all have in common.

In each of the situations there would be some value in broadcasting atheism, but there's something of greater value that's at stake. I'd keep my eye on that other something.

Come to think of it, I'd be dubious of a Jew who went around with a "J" t-shirt, or a Hindu who went around with an "H" t-shirt. Do we really all want to go around wearing divisive labels on our clothing?

Then again, you can belong to just about any religion and state that in public, as Dawkins points out. You're a Jain, or a Sikh, or a Mormon, or a Muslim? How extremely interesting! In a country like the U.S., most people will respond with utmost respect, and even curiosity. Say you're an atheist and most likely folks will look at you in horror. (It's true...it really is.) The "A" has a unique justification in an environment of disrespect.

I really do "get" the coming out campaign. I do periodically speak about atheism on this site, even at the risk of offending people who might visit because they're interested in some of the other issues I often write about (like animals).

I just think if I had the T-shirt (my line, not Dawkins') it might stay in my drawer most of the time.


Talent Show Poll

Thank you to all 75 voters for taking the Talent Show poll, over there in the right column!

To stay or not to stay, that is the question
Here’s the situation—you’re at your child’s talent show and she’s finished performing. Some folks are leaving after their own kid’s turn, and you consider doing the same.

I once sat through a show with broken air conditioning in the middle of a Dallas summer. It was sweltering and there was very little talent on display, but I couldn’t possibly go. As people left in droves, leaving the remaining performers with very few people to clap for them, I wondered about the thoughts of those who stay and those who leave.

What intrigues me is that when I look at my reasons for staying, they seem so fragmented. I can’t get the reason to be one simple reason. Misery loves company, so I’m glad to see that 7, the combination answer, is the one in the lead (34%).

Reciprocity (2) is a big factor for me. Maybe the children’s feelings would come into it (3) if a lot of other people were leaving too. The specter of every parent leaving after his kid’s performance draws me to the rather Kantian (4). How could a talent show really work if everyone did that? Golden-rule-ish (5) has entered my mind in these situations. And though I would never spontaneously think about it in Utilitarian terms (6), I can’t say that makes no sense.

Instead of just admitting ethical stupidity—why can’t I settle on one answer?--I’m going to try to draw deep conclusions here. I admit this has a little of the flavor of making lemonade out of lemons, so caveat emptor.

All the other answers
But first, about those who didn’t pick 7. I had an opportunity for an extensive exit interview with just one person, namely my husband. It went something like this: “What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you choose 7?”

He said it was wimpy, and in polls like this you’re really supposed to force yourself to choose one answer. (He chose 2--reciprocity) I wonder how many people who didn’t choose 7 –40% chose either 3 (kindness) or 4 (Kant)--were thinking along those lines.

As for the 1’s, who would stay if they felt like it, leave if they felt like it, don’t worry, you’ve got the rest of your life to repent. Just kidding—I can see a case for living life with a little more spontaneity. “Cheerful moral anarchy” is a nice phrase from Jonathan Glover’s book Choosing Children. It has its attractions.

We Sevens
Alright, now for the deep conclusions. You might say there’s a single idea underlying all of 2-6, which is to take other people seriously—as having needs, feelings, rights. But there do seem to be significantly different ways of expounding on that idea. Possibly I’m just lacking moral smarts, or confused, or need to hear another 50 arguments and counterarguments, but my gut feeling is that all of these strains of moral thought are cogent. Morality is irreducibly complex, multi-faceted, plural—pick your own pretty word.

Possibly we 7’s are just undisciplined. We think about our obligations in multiple ways. In this case our different approaches converge. In other cases, our pluralism is going to pull us in different directions. We’re not going to be sure which way to go, because the Kantian in us (expressed by 4) says X and the Utilitarian (6) says Y. Reciprocity (2) says this, and kindness (3) says that.

It’s nice there’s actually a view that endorses this kind of messiness. It’s W. D. Ross’s moral intuitionism. He says there are many prima facie duties that have to be recognized and in specific situations they can converge (like the talent show situation) but they will often pull in opposite directions. Then we have to “just” figure out which is predominant. That, of course, is the problem, and the reason why there’s an irresistible impulse to keep looking for the holy grail, the one true moral theory.