Tag Archives: meaning of life

Links: TV stories replace novels, etc.

1. This post at The Dish about people having their need for stories fulfilled by watching TV rather than by reading books reminds me of a similar thing Kurt Vonnegut said about why short stories aren’t purchased by and read in magazines during the age of TV as they were before TV. (I can’t seem to find this particular quote online.)

2. But I did find these collections of wonderful KVJ quotes here and here.

3. Fiction as moral, and writing fiction as a process of inquiry. See also my recent posting on fiction-as-morality here.

4. Tolstoy on meaning and death, from a recent review excerpted here:

And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.

5. Secular societies and spiritual experiences.

6. A sarcastic-but-excellent column about why guns don’t belong on any campus.

7. We study philosophy to have our own perspectives challenged. Some great bits in this interview with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, starting with philosophy and kids:

How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?

I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My body did that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.

And kids love to argue.

They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special about them? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.

There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.

and on philosophical progress:

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. … It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.

and

What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.

and on how to teach philosophy:

How do you think philosophy is best taught?

I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.

and

Wisdom of the unknown, or Why doesn’t Santa bring me a Lexus?

2013_12_01_mh (8)_cropReading the previous post  a day later, I realize that I’m being intense about — I’m taking very seriously — my desire to remove magic from my life. It’s not real, so why deal with it?

But as I was emailing a friend this morning, I thought of another angle here: why is there no Santa for adults? I mean, why shouldn’t there be? And I’m not saying that there should be some group of humans who go around fulfilling adults’ wishes, leaving us new cars in our driveways (I always wonder when I see those holiday car ads  where a new Lexus, or whatever, is wrapped in a bow: who the fuck gets a NEW LUXURY CAR for Christmas? Maybe they’re not new cars — maybe they’re, per the patois, “gently used.” I guess this could happen somewhere, but not in my ZIP code.), although that actually would be pretty cool.

But it’s an interesting, if daydreamy, question to ask: Why isn’t there magic? I know some people like to describe certain things — like winning the lottery, or recovering from a serious illness — as “miraculous,” which is very similar to magic. But, as the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. But why be so mysterious, Lord? Why shouldn’t I walk outside tomorrow morning or, OK, Christmas morning (it’d be acceptable for me if God, like Santa, delivered miracles only once a year), and find a new hundred-thousand-dollar car in my driveway? Or what if God actually solved real problems, like curing addiction or preventing poverty or ending child abuse?

This brings us to the problem of evil, for which of course, there are no good answers. And one could also argue that if God, or Santa, really did things for us, we’d get lazy or something. On the other hand, we’re such dependent creatures, anyway. I mean, we can’t go more than a few minutes without needing some oxygen from the world — why should being so dependent on oxygen be well and good, but being hooked on nicotine be unhealthy?

I’m not trying to be entirely facetious here, either (a little facetious, but not entirely so). I’ve long thought that certain things are our birthright as humans: oxygen, for one, but also water and food. Of course, in a world of lots of people and limited resources, not everyone would agree that having clean water and healthy food should be human rights. We humans were born here, in a world where there exist the things we need to survive, and yet, we find ourselves at times having to face challenges to our survival, such as threats (lions, tigers, bears, the Marburg virus, etc.) and competition (from other humans).

So we learn — as individuals, and as a species — ways to live in the world, ways to get what we need, and even what we want. The things we learn, we call rules, ideas, laws of science, etc., and we feel that this knowledge can tell us how to act, so that we can be not merely passive, not helpless (even if we sometimes still are powerless, as when there’s an earthquake or a tornado, and even if what we do makes things worse — global warming, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, etc.). We who live in cultures that give science and rationality the authority to determine what’s real don’t accept any explanation that requires God (or magic, or Santa, or ghosts, etc.). Relying on science discourages us from burning witches and following leaders who do what their dreams command, but it also gives us a worldview in which some things are easily knowable (for instance, acceleration due to gravity) and other things (such as why moms and dogs die) completely unknowable.

So I know why Santa won’t bring me a Lexus — science says there is no Santa, and there has to be a set of physical (and paperwork) steps for a Lexus to come to me and be my own. It’s not impossible that humans would conspire to bring about my Lexus (hint, hint?), but there’s no evidence for God or Santa there. If God and Santa work completely through the acts of others (of people or of nature), well, then we could subtract God and Santa and still have the same people and nature, without losing anything but the empty ideas of “God” and “Santa.”

Of course, I’ll grant that it can be fun to mislead children — I am a teacher, after all. But instead of asserting that people should have unjustifiable faith in the particular idea that magic, including Santa, and our humanly defined God, are real, we can instead know that there is an unknown, wherein we can be humble about, and even hopeful in, what we do not know. To assert knowledge about the limits of the possible is perhaps as faulty as asserting knowledge about the physically impossible. I don’t have to ask God to change the physical world for my betterment, and also, I don’t have to think that such change is impossible. Whether Santa brings me a Lexus, or my wife does, I still would have a Lexus. (I don’t have a Lexus.) Also, what’s more beautiful than having a Lexus is, of course, realizing that I don’t need to have a Lexus at all, that having a Lexus doesn’t make me smarter or write more goodly.

I often find a refuge in the unknown, in thinking that I don’t need to know the answers. I take as existing what seems to exist, and I generally feel pretty good in my own existence without postulating divine, magical beings. I can make and find my own meanings, without needing to get those meanings from, or ground them in, some unknowable supernatural entity.

So who am I to complain about the concept of Santa? In some ways, it’s pretty wonderful to be a child and to believe that some dude you don’t even have to thank is gonna bring you some pretty terrific loud-and-shiny stuff. Just because adults don’t get to believe that doesn’t mean that adults really know the world, either. (It’s actually kinda interesting to consider how adults made up such a as simple entity as Santa. It’s as if someone took human capabilities — generosity, material wealth, sleigh-driving — and just magnified or distorted those — giving gifts to all houses in a night, driving a flying sleigh — to create some kind of magnified super-person — a superhero, as it were. I sometimes wonder why we humans have such small-bore imaginations: instead of coming up with beings who are us, but a little bit more, why not imagine heroes who are unlike us, beings whose realms are beyond comprehension. Even when we try to describe God as being all-powerful and all-creating, we end up in logical cul-de-sacs such as this one. If instead we just say, “there are things beyond comprehension,” we at least allow ourselves to be wise in our silence.)