Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

My psychology re Trump: Crime and Punishment

July 13, 2017

This blog might seem to show a Trump obsession — “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” But I have explained that this is not normal politics, it’s a discontinuity, with huge long-term ramifications. Attention must be paid.

I acknowledge an emotionality to my blogging.* My love for America, and the values I thought it stood for, are deeply felt. Their being trashed elicits correspondingly strong emotion. I feel as if betrayed by a lifelong beloved — and also as if she’s been raped, defiled, degraded.

Throughout my half century of political engagement, I’ve had strong opinions about issues, candidates, and personages. But nothing like this. There’s an added element operating here.

Evolution endowed human beings with strong justice feelings. This enhanced survival for early people living in close-knit cooperative groups. Rewarding behavior good for the group, and punishing antisocial conduct, made groups work better. That gave us pre-installed bad behavior detectors, and desire for punishment of transgressors.

Knowing myself, my own justice settings are on “high.” (At eleven, as Nigel said of the amplifiers in Spinal Tap.) And Trump triggers them in a way no other American political figure ever has.** My politically opposing them never extended to seeing them as moral violators meriting punishment. In fact I always used to criticize that kind of attitude, and the demonization of political opponents, arguing that we’re all sincere in wanting what’s best for our country.

That was then. This is different. In demonizing Trump it would be hard to overstate the case. And for him I do want not just political defeat but punishment. I want to see him suffer for what he’s done. Cellphone shoved down his throat (or elsewhere). (That’s the self-censored version of what I originally wrote.)

He’s the poster boy for the ancient conundrum — why does evil prosper? A man who’s done nothing but evil, cheating and lying his way through life, screwing people, leaving a scorched earth of injured victims (yes, that’s his business history), and reaping nothing but rewards. Indeed, what this narcissist craves most is attention, and has anyone ever gotten more?

I was brought up to believe lies and cheating should be punished. But never mind all his business victims. Of course Trump’s damage to our country is the really grievous crime. His getting away with it all, being rewarded, flouts my sense of justice. Remember too why we have one — to keep society working properly. People seen to get away with crime undermines the very basis on which we all live together. This is a cancer on our body politic. Unlike with normal political to-and-fro, I feel things are now cosmically out-of-whack, as though what I understood to be the laws of nature are scrambled. Trump’s comeuppance would restore the order of the Universe.

The religious might say that evildoers get their punishment in Hell. It was exactly to assuage justice cravings like mine that Hell was invented. But of course that’s as big a lie as any Trump tells.

And most religious Americans actually think he’s doing God’s work. And that God imparts morality!

* But emotion is never actually disconnected from reason. I have written about this.

** Though many in other countries deserve the Ceausescu-Qadafy treatment.

We are all conspiracy theorists

June 30, 2017

Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories starts off saying it won’t be a book cataloguing and debunking them. Instead it aims to explain the psychology underlying such beliefs.

What exactly is a “conspiracy theory?” Real conspiracies, large and (mostly) small go on all the time, but that’s not what we mean. We know Lincoln’s assassination was part of a conspiracy. But a “conspiracy theory,” in common usage, is unproven — by design, Brotherton says. Its adherents think they see something deeper than others do. And — in common usage — they’re whacko.

The book’s key take-away is that conspiracy theories come from psychological quirks that are actually not the exclusive province of whackos, but affect us all. Our brains are products of a long evolution during which our ancestors faced many life-or-death challenges requiring quick intuitive responses. You had to be good at spotting predators. And if making a mistake, better make it on the safe side, of seeing something, even if it’s not really there.

This bequeaths us a highly valuable capability, for pattern recognition. The world is a place of dizzying complexity that bombards our brain with a jumble of information. To survive, to function at all, we have to make order from that chaos — to recognize, for example, that that thing concealed in the bushes is a lion. We literally “connect the dots.” And we’re so good at it that we sometimes connect more dots and see more patterns than comport with what’s really there. Thus are conspiracy theories (and religions) born. Conspiracy theories quintessentially entail seeing patterns and connecting dots.

Despite its opening disclaimer, Brotherton perhaps inevitably does fill many pages with the details and defects of popular conspiracy theories. The JFK assassination gets much attention; a majority of Americans believe it was a conspiracy. This illustrates one psychological factor: we are primed to suppose that big outcomes must have big causes. (Thus dice players, when shooting for a high number, instinctively throw the dice more forcefully.) So we refuse to believe JFK’s death resulted from a lucky shot by a pathetic little twerp, Oswald. And Oswald’s killing by another loser, Ruby, almost begs for a bigger conspiratorial explanation. But would a serious conspiracy have relied on two flakes like those? And as Brotherton also explains, truth can be stranger than fiction. (For the truth about the JFK assassination, click here.)

Another key psychological factor is confirmation bias. I’ve written before how our beliefs become impervious to correction, because we love information that seems to validate them, and shun anything that undermines them. Ironically, smarter people are more prone to this, because they are better at coming up with rationalizations to support their preconceptions and to reject contradictory data. As Brotherton writes, “we’re not always the best judge of why we believe what we believe.”

Our brains’ neuronal wiring changes as experiences are absorbed. It’s a canonical principle that neurons that “fire together wire together.” After finishing this book, I happened to read an article applying that to beliefs. A strongly held belief actually makes your brain’s wiring to go along the same pathway whenever the subject arises. Over time, this “fire together wire together” effect strengthens, as though etching grooves in the brain — making the belief ever more impervious to being modified.

Humans are story lovers, and Brotherton explains how conspiracy theories feed that hunger via the greatest archetypal story line — the underdog hero battling the powerful monster (think Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc.). The conspiracy is the monster with evil aims. We are also natural born morality seekers, and enjoy exercising that faculty, puffing up our moralistic feathers. Thus conspiracy theories push our psychological buttons.

Not surprisingly, the kind of mind that goes for one conspiracy theory is likely to buy others, even if unrelated. One Austrian study found that conspiracy-minded people would even agree with a completely made-up conspiracy theory. Such theories don’t even have to agree with each other. Brotherton notes that some conspiracists believe Osama bin Laden was actually killed back in ’02 and the fact was covered up, but also in theories that he’s actually still alive. A “Schrodinger’s terrorist?”

And radio nutball Alex Jones never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like — Newtown, 9/11, the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings, you name it — all faked by government conspirators.

Alex Jones

(The fool in the White House appeared on Jones’s show and said Jones has an “amazing reputation.”)

What makes all such conspiracy theories ultimately laughable is the large number of (otherwise serious and responsible) people who would have to agree to be involved, and who would have to keep mum.

The book explores why some of us are more conspiracy minded than others. It has to do with the lens through which you view the world — how you think it works. A big factor is how much trust you have in general, and the degree of control you feel over your own life. But nobody feels totally in control or has absolute trust; we are all suspicious to a degree, indeed, all paranoid to a degree. This too is an evolutionary inheritance — suspicion was prudent for our ancestors, and surely even today there is much to be suspicious about — like e-mails from Nigeria. Brotherton also points out that the randomness factor in life is unsettling to us. Conspiracy theories are a way to impose some seeming order on a chaotic cosmos.

Belief in them also correlates with other departures from conventional paradigms — like belief in the supernatural, parapsychology, alternative medicine. Common to all is rejection of “what they want you to think,” so you can congratulate yourself as an independent mind. Opposition to vaccination and Genetic Modification fits right in with this too. (It’s “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World,” as the title of a book by Francis Wheen declares.)

Most conspiracy theories spin together facts and evidence, even if drawing from them tortured conclusions. JFK is again a case in point; conspiracists are fountains of details. But evidence isn’t strictly necessary. For example, the book details the theories of David Icke, who attracts large audiences to his ten-hour lectures. Commonly enough, Icke sees the world being run, behind the scenes, by faceless conspirators for large and evil purposes. But he takes it a step further, postulating that they are actually being manipulated by a deeper “interdimensional” conspiracy of reptilian aliens called “Archons.”

I wrote in the margin, “He knows this how?”

Is liberal democracy really no better than communism?

June 1, 2017

Naturally I endeavored to impart my worldview to my daughter. Most of my lifetime was dominated by the struggle between communism, which I considered a great evil, and the West, whose fundamental values I have sacralized. This she knows well. And so it was as a kind of intellectual provocation that she gifted me with a 2016 book arguing that the system of liberal democracy is really, after all, not so different from communism.

It’s by Ryszard Legutko, titled The Demon in Democracy – Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. That sounded intriguingly timely when, as I have recently written, democracy seems to be going off the rails, with voters making all kinds of bad choices. Though “totalitarian” may be too strong a word; “authoritarian” is more apt. Such a temptation has indeed seduced Turkey; the author’s own Poland; Russia (albeit never a free society) seems drunk with authoritarianism (as well as vodka); and of course America’s electorate has pulled a monumental boner.

But the book does not try to explain these trends; its author has other fish to fry. Legutko is a Polish philosophy professor and former Minister of Education. He was a longtime opponent of the communist regime. But its fall leaves him sourly disillusioned. He hates the new “liberal-democratic” (his usage) dispensation as much as the communist one.*

Both he sees as more or less similarly ideologically oppressive. To his eye, liberal-democratic culture apes communism in ruthless enforcement of ideological orthodoxy — “political correctness.” I myself have written critically in this vein. But as a philosopher Legutko maddeningly writes in abstract generalities, virtually eschewing concrete illustrative facts. For example, one of his pet targets is feminism in all its manifestations. Yet for all his inveighing against feminist political correctness, he never mentions how Lawrence Summers fell victim to it. Nor any other such actual evidence to corroborate his jeremiad.

Legutko

Homosexuality is another of his pet peeves. The remarkably rapid evolution in societal mores vis-a-vis homosexuality has thrown a lot of traditionalists for a loop, and Legutko is one of them. He deems it shameful that what he considers good arguments against gay marriage (though he doesn’t actually recite them) no longer get a fair hearing. (I don’t think they’re good arguments, but thinly veiled prejudice.) But here too Legutko inexplicably fails to mention a perfect example supporting his case, that of Brendan Eich, ousted from a corporate leadership post for backing a California referendum against gay marriage.

Eventually, the author’s principal animus becomes clear. It’s what he sees as the “war on Christianity.” He actually uses those words, likening it, in “liberal-democracy,” to what he says were communism’s horrifying atrocities trying to exterminate religion. Legutko writes that “Christians are — and it must be repeated over and over — the most persecuted religious group in the world.” Seriously?

He calls separation of church and state an American peculiarity that shouldn’t apply to Europe. In a rare instance of concreteness, he cites the Lautsi case, where a European court ruled that Italy’s public schools can’t display crucifixes. Legutko decries the refusal of many governments, including his own, to join in an appeal (but fails to note that the ruling was in fact reversed on appeal).

Nevertheless, he says the case reflected “coldness to the plight of Christians and Christianity,” which he believes merit a privileged public position: “the religion that has been of paramount importance is being equalized with the religions that had no importance at all.” Legutko says Christianity is “not just a religion, but a vital spiritual element of Western identity.” It’s “the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.” By rejecting Christianity, “Europe, and indeed, the entire West not only slides into cultural aridity . . . but also falls under the smothering monopoly of one ideology.”

Perhaps Legutko, in his fixation on Christian religion, has failed to notice that Europe and the West today, far from being ideologically monolithic, are in fact politically riven, polarized between radically different ideologies. As witness the French runoff between Le Pen and Macron, who agreed on almost nothing. This highlights too a crucial difference, that Legutko studiously avoids talking about, between communism and “liberal-democracy” — that is, the democracy part. Communist regimes, of course, conducted no such elections. That was true ideological monopolization. Legutko’s effort to equate the two systems is ultimately just ridiculous.

As for religion, he likewise fails to see a crucial difference. Whereas communism sought to defeat religion by force, Europe’s collapse of faith is traceable to a very different cause: the falsity of doctrines which people simply no longer believe. That waning of superstition is a good thing.

* Never mentioned in the book is Legutko’s affiliation with Poland’s reigning “Law and Justice” party — assiduously undermining Poland’s democracy and rule of law. It seems Legutko himself suffers from the temptation of his book’s title.

Does religion cause violence?

May 28, 2017

A congressional candidate physically assaults a reporter — and gets elected. What the f— is happening to this country? And meantime atrocities are committed with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

Once again my wife gifted me with a book to challenge me: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The rap is that religion, by instilling a notion of absolute truth and a limitless sense of righteousness, inspires violence. As witness all the persecutions, religious wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, all the way to 9/11 and ISIS. Some say this outweighs any good religion does, and we’d be better without it.

Armstrong, a leading historian of religion, has a different take. She aims to get religion off the hook, with (the back cover says) “a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.”

Well, for a book about “the peaceful nature of faith,” it sure is soaked in blood, amply living up to the title. It is a depressing, horrifying read. Yet, in chronicling one atrocity after another, Armstrong’s basic point is that religious belief per se is not their root cause. Instead, religion has often been cover for what is really more about politics, power, and lucre.

In pursuing those, some actors are more cynical than others. And while, for men at the top (and it’s mostly been men) cynicism may have reigned supreme, for the foot soldiers in the killing fields religious zealotry often provided the indispensable motivator.

Armstrong does repeatedly stress what she considers to be the peaceful teachings of most religions. Yet there can be a cognitive disconnect. She puzzles over how the Crusaders, for example, could reconcile what she calls their psychotic violence with the teachings of the faith they were supposedly fighting for. But she also explains how battle and slaughter themselves can inspire a kind of extremist ecstasy. I would add: especially when coupled with a sense of supreme religious righteousness. So religion is, indeed, very much part of the problem.

It is also important to understand that through most of history, political power was not the thing we know today. The idea of the state serving the needs and interests of the citizenry is quite a modern concept. Previously, the state was essentially a vehicle of predation, with whatever good it did being calculated to keep the populace sufficiently submissive that their pockets could be efficiently picked for the benefit of the rulers.

Luther

God was part of the formula by which the powerful ruled, for their self-aggrandizement. Armstrong makes the point that only in modern times has “religion” come to be seen as a thing unto itself. Previously it was integrally bound up with the whole culture, including its political and power structures; “separation of church and state” would have made no sense to those populations. But Martin Luther argued for it, saying that religion should be something private, interior, and that marrying it with state power was an unending source of trouble.

Locke

And the philosopher John Locke made a similar case from the standpoint of human liberty – that it was just wrong to try to compel religious belief. But it took some further horrors (like the Thirty Years War, killing 35% of Europe’s population) to convince sensible heads that Luther and Locke were right.

Note too that before modern times there was really no such thing as economic growth. That meant one state (its rulers, really) could get richer only at the expense of another. A further impetus to warfare in which, again, religious pretexts were very useful.

The emergence of the modern state curbed a lot of the violence that was so endemic. Today most governments do at least try to serve their citizenries, and prosper better through trade than war. This is a key reason why violence has in fact so markedly declined (as well explained in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) A noteworthy exception today is Syria – very much an old time predatory state (if at this point you could even call it a state). And then there’s ISIS, whose demented violence is not really attached to any state, in the modern sense, either.

But that religion per se, religion itself, still causes violence is all too evident. Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, experience intensifying lynchings of accused “blasphemers.” And it’s not the work of just a few extremists, but a widespread cultural pathology. A Pakistani student was recently dragged from his dorm room, by classmates, and brutally killed, on some vague accusation of blasphemy.

Speaking of violence, I was unable to finish the book – it fell victim to the January Fort Lauderdale airport shooter. I went to Fort Laud for a coin show and planned to fly home that Friday evening. Because of the shooting I could not fly till Sunday. I scheduled a cab for 6:00 AM and a 5:45 wake-up call. The call didn’t come, but I awakened at 5:54, and rushed out. In the rush, the book got left behind.

Niebuhr

I will end by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.

I renounce my Republicanism

May 14, 2017

I have been a Republican for 53 years. I have served as an elected party official; have run campaigns and run for office as a Republican; was appointed by President Nixon to a federal commission. Republicanism has been part of my personal identity.

I came by it the hard way, not by inheritance. I grew up in a Democratic family, in a Democratic neighborhood, in FDR’s afterglow. The party seemed to represent bland conventional wisdom. Until the 1964 Goldwater campaign gave me something stronger: fierce principles that felt right to me. I became a political activist. And not just a Republican, but a very conservative Republican.

The national and global issues were, of course, important. But Tip O’Neill’s dictum, “all politics is local,” supervened when I came to Albany in 1970. In place of somewhat abstract opposition to distant evils, I imbibed the heady brew of battling evil up close in my new home town, ruled by a corrupt old-time political machine. Here the Republican party was the avatar of civic virtue. This was a moral crusade (more about that here).

My period of intense political involvement ended when that crusade fizzled out. Yet my allegiance to the party’s basic ideals and principles continued.

And then, starting around 1980, the GOP got religion. It’s hard to remember now, but previously religion played very little role in what the party represented. Most Republicans may have been religious, but that was separate from politics. God was rarely mentioned. The Republicanism that originally attracted me was grounded in reason, in the values of the Enlightenment, in a classical philosophical liberalism (a word American “liberals” wrongly co-opted), aimed at making a world in which all people can best thrive.

Religion undermines this. One cannot apply reason to the world’s problems while mistaking the fundamental nature of reality. Religion is magical thinking, and that has infected Republican politics. We see this in their comprehensive scientific denialism. But nothing better epitomizes magical thinking, divorced from reason and reality, than putting in the White House a bad man who is the antithesis of everything godly people supposedly honor.

And of course the policies the Republican party now stands for are unrecognizable to this veteran of ’64. It sure isn’t conservatism. (Which, among other things, was strongly anti-communist. Now we’re a veritable Russian satellite.) But actually the old categories of conservative versus liberal, right versus left, have become a muddle. Today’s real political divide is between open and closed orientations. It’s openness to trade, to markets, to immigrants, to human diversity, to change, to ideas, to facts. With an outward-looking America building a world of open societies. Republicans flunk on all counts.

But my disaffection from Republicanism is more a matter of culture and values than policies or ideology. Those are trumped by the principles of rationalism, responsibility, just plain decency, and, in a word, humanism. Republicans and their regime trash all of it. Their xenophobia, ethnic nationalism, fondness for dictators, callousness and moralistic hypocrisy are repellent. They’re drenched in lies. They shred basic American values. They’re a freak show, disgracing the country.

Remember, this is not a Democrat talking, but a lifelong Republican — one not blinded (like most) by partisanship.

I have plenty of ideological problems with today’s Democrats and the Left (as expressed on this blog). But they are more humanistic. Their ideas about economics and social justice are often barmy, but at least they are genuinely concerned with human values, and at least their feet are planted, more or less, on this Earth. At least they mostly respect truth and reason (though freedom of expression not so much). They are serious and responsible. I like them better as people. Republicans’ behavior has become thoroughly hateful to me.

Are they irredeemable? For a long while now, it’s been asked when sane, public-minded Republicans would finally get it together and stand against Trump. Well, forget it, there just aren’t enough John McCains in the GOP. (And even McCain, whose heroism was smeared by Trump, nevertheless endorsed him.) No, Republicans, almost unanimously, have drunk the Kool-Aid.

(And, in their eyes, have been rewarded. The party has more power now than at any time since the 1920s. Even though Democrats actually have more voter support; Republican control is due to the Senate and electoral college math disproportionately empowering smaller and less urban states, and to gerrymandered House districts. But this doesn’t temper Republican triumphalist hubris.)

And so, after much agonizing, in recognition of today’s reality, I can no longer call myself a Republican. It’s not the party I joined. I must cut out that part of my selfhood. But I cannot join the Democrats’ own misguided leftward march.* I am cast out into the political wilderness.

I am not alone there. But most of the country remains stuck in the two hostile partisan camps. It’s a very destructive syndrome, with no cure I can see.

* “Socialism” has been pronounced dead even in France!

The decline of Western civilization and its values

May 4, 2017

David Brooks is my favorite commentator writing today. I don’t always agree with him — too much religion — but in most ways his head’s screwed on right and his work repays attention. A recent column crystallizes well my own global perspective.

Brooks starts by citing Will and Ariel Durant’s popular mid-20th century multi-volume opus, The Story of Civilization. It was really the narrative of Western civilization and the values undergirding its flourishing, including reasoned discourse, property rights, and a belief in human progress. I would add accountable democratic government, open markets, and scientific inquiry. It was the emergence of these Enlightenment ideas that propelled the West’s phenomenal achievement in improving people’s quality of life.

But this narrative, especially in universities, has lost its mojo — intellectually speaking. People don’t read the Durants, or their like, any more. Indeed, the construct “Western civilization” has actually fallen into bad odor, as “a history of oppression.” Now we are being educated to distrust, rather than honor, what it means. “The great cultural transmission belt broke.”

This intellectual reversal has had huge real-world impacts. There have always been forces eager to tear down what the West stands for. But now the citadel has few defenders against these onslaughts. So we see the rise of “illiberal” strongmen — Putin, Erdogan, al-Sisi, Xi, Trump — who, unlike previous bad guys, don’t even give lip service to democratic Western values.

Turkey’s recent vote turned its back on them. Democracy is no longer seen as the wave of the future. In “advanced” nations, the center doesn’t hold. In Europe mainstream political parties lose ground to fringe ones with fierce ideologies. In America, where you’d expect universities to be redoubts of intellectual freedom, the opposite is seen — destruction of those values, as nonconforming voices are literally shouted down. America’s president (an historical ignoramus) cozies up to some of the world’s worst thugs.

“The basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals.” The percentage of young Americans polled who say it’s “absolutely important” to live in a democracy has dropped from 91% in the 1930s to only 57% today. In his campaign, “Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries” — and every norm of civic decency — and too few voters seemed to care.

Brooks sadly concludes that defenders of the great tradition of Western values are now down to “a few lonely voices.”

Count me one of them. I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2009 when those Western values — and rationality — still seemed ascendant. Today fools prance triumphant around bonfires of reason. I’ll end with Schiller’s words: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

The march for science

April 24, 2017

Quiz #1 — Who made this statement about Saturday’s march for science: “Rigorous science depends not on ideology but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate”?

a) Neil deGrasse Tyson
b) Bill Gates
c) Stephen Hawking
d) Donald Trump

The answer is (d).

Quiz #2 — Did the statement come from

a) His lips
b) His Twitter account
c) His pen
d) A spokesperson

The answer is (d).

Science is not just another belief system or “faith.” Belief and knowledge are two different things. One can say “Joe believes the earth is flat” but not “Joe knows the earth is flat.”

How we know things is called epistemology. Scientific knowledge comes from a rigorous process of deduction from observation and evidence, always open to correction through better observation and evidence. Belief has nothing to do with it.

You can believe the earth is flat, but through science we know it isn’t. You can even do fake science, cherrypicking bits of information (and making up a lot) to deny evolution, but real science knows it’s true.

You can similarly torture facts to deny climate change and/or humanity’s role in it. Or to see harm outweighing benefits in vaccination, or Genetic Modification. Pick your ideology; believe what you like. But if you prefer reality, try real science.

Photo of me at the march by Therese Broderick

The Big Picture – a sound viewpoint on life and the world

April 12, 2017

Physicist Sean Carroll has written The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. It sets out a philosophy or worldview which he labels “poetic naturalism.” Naturalism simply means no supernaturalism. “Poetic” says this is not prosaic. Instead this view of existence can fill us with awe and wonder. Human life arose by natural processes, but it’s nonetheless very special; almost miraculous.

The book’s 433 pages cover a lot of ground. But I will focus on just the penultimate chapter, a kind of summing up.

Carroll notes the popularity of the Ten Commandments – because people “like making lists of ten things, and telling other people how to behave.” Of course, the Ten Commandments were handed down by a deity who never existed, as part of an historical narrative that never happened. But Carroll is down on the idea of commandments altogether, and my libertarian soul shares that antipathy toward people being told what to do. Those who think we need a God to tell us stealing is wrong must have a pretty dim view of our species.

 

In lieu of commandments, Carroll offers what he calls Ten Considerations: things we (well, some of us) think are true, and that help us shape our approach to life and the universe we inhabit. These ten points amount to a philosophy of life. I was struck by how closely they match the ideas I myself have arrived at over a lifetime of contemplation. Much of this entails recognizing philosophical mistakes that bollix up a lot of folks’ thinking; it contradicts what many people think.

Here are the ten, with my own gloss:

1. Life isn’t forever. Carroll deems this a good thing. “Eternity is longer than you think.” Though couldn’t there be some middle ground between eternity and a mere century? But anyhow, death is final, this life on Earth is all we get. One must live with this crucial understanding; hiding from it is incompatible with living a truly meaningful life.

2. Desire is built into life. Some philosophies see desires as evil, impediments to happiness, that we should strive to banish. That’s wrong, because desires are what give life meaning and purpose, making us care about our lives. If you truly desired nothing, why care about living?

3. What matters is what matters to people. My version: what matters are the feelings of beings that experience feelings. Nothing else can matter. The existence of the universe itself could not matter, absent beings to whom it matters.

4. We can always do better. This reflects the fundamental humanist stance of optimism rather than pessimism about our species and its trajectory. Cynicism on this score is endemic. Carroll acknowledges “[i]t may seem strange to claim the existence of moral progress” (his emphasis), but says “that’s exactly what we find in human history.” I myself have written a whole book making this argument. So has the slightly more famous Steven Pinker (citing mine).

5. It pays to listen. Because all human minds are fallible, one should be open to new information and insights. This has great relevance to today’s U.S. political environment, with confirmation bias running amok, and the nation divided between two camps living in alternate universes.

6. There is no natural way to be. Carroll says that our being part of nature makes it tempting to valorize “being natural.” This has indeed long been a major cultural and philosophical trope. But nature doesn’t in fact guide us in how to live. “Nature is kind of a mess,” often appalling, says Carroll. And nature doesn’t think. We should instead look to our reason for guidance.

7. It takes all kinds. “People are different, so they’re going to create different things. That’s a feature to be celebrated, not an annoyance to be eradicated.” It’s from that variety among people, especially in how they think, that dynamism, progress, and advancement come. A society of people all alike would be stagnant.

8. The universe is in our hands. We are not hapless playthings of an impersonal cosmos, nor subjects of “fate.” Instead our ability to think empowers us to alter our conditions of existence. As indeed we have spectacularly done.

9. We can do better than happiness. The “happiness” question is a perennial philosophical conundrum, exemplified by John Stuart Mill’s query, is it better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied? Carroll distinguishes between one’s state of being at a given moment and the journey one is on, and suggests focusing more on the latter. It’s the difference between fleeting feelings and the ongoing sense of a life well lived.

10. Reality guides us. Carroll recognizes that certain illusions can make one feel happier, but says, “very few people knowingly seek out false beliefs.” And while illusions can be pleasant, “the rewards of truth are enormously greater.” I have written about my “ideology of reality,” with facts shaping my beliefs rather than allowing beliefs to shape what I think are facts. It’s a matter of self-respect to hew to what is real and true, to live authentically. A life well lived cannot be grounded in falsity.

Class dismissed. Now go have fun.

The Gorsuch hearings: American exceptionalism

March 29, 2017

Amid all the dispiriting news from Washington lately, I listened to much of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ‘s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of course this too is a highly controversial political matter, playing out in a country that is politically divided to an extreme degree.

But I’m not writing about that; rather, of having been struck by the public-spirited, constructive, intelligent, responsible, and good-humored* tenor of the proceedings. Despite our febrile political climate, civility rather than partisan nastiness largely prevailed. This speaks volumes about the character of this country and its institutions. The positive feeling I got, listening to this, was a very welcome antidote to the last couple of months, in which the character of this country and its institutions have been desecrated by the president.

Leaving the politics aside (is it possible?), Judge Gorsuch seems to be an extremely capable, honest, thoughtful, responsible, intelligent, learned, articulate, reasonable, gracious, humble, decent human being (everything the president is not). That we still do have people like Gorsuch at the pinnacle of public life is a great testament to the character of the America I have so loved.

Senator Ted Cruz has not been one of my favorites. I’ve loathed him, and his political machinations. Yet listening to his colloquy with Judge Gorsuch, I was frankly surprised at how intelligent, erudite, and well-spoken even Cruz was. He was not ranting, nor even making political points so much as philosophical ones, and making them extremely well. One could see the merits that got Ted Cruz as far as he’s come. (Too bad presidential ambition can bring out the worst in people.)

And these earnest discussions, between senators and Gorsuch, of fine points of constitutional law, precedents, interpretations, and philosophies were a good reminder of the depth and richness of the institutional and moral foundations of the society we have built. As a student of history and of the world, I know too well how different things have been through most of the past, in most every country, and indeed in many if not most even today. In few times and places could such elevated public discourse be conceivable. This is America’s exceptionalism: a society, under rule of law, venerating rule of law, truly striving to provide the best possible environment for human beings to flourish. Uniquely, America’s core is not shared ethnicity but shared ideals. America is great because it is good.

I was particularly gratified by Judge Gorsuch’s words about the 14th Amendment, calling its broad guarantee of equality under law one of the most radical enactments in human history. I have written about the beauty of the 14th Amendment (and the shame of those Republicans who today advocate its repeal.)

Listening to these elevated hearings did remind me of the pride I have felt in my country and the values it represented. A feeling I have sorely missed. Yet I am cognizant that these proceedings took place on a sort of Mount Olympus. While down below, in less rarefied precincts, newly empowered fools prance around bonfires of truth, reason, and decency. How many Americans today have a real understanding and appreciation of the country’s foundational ideals? If they did, they would have no use for a creep like Trump. Without that understanding by the citizenry, no matter how fervent their flag waving, America’s greatness is ultimately doomed. God has not ordained it eternal. The Gorsuch hearings deepened my pain over the precious thing fools are witlessly destroying.

* Like Senator Sasse asking Gorsuch how he could go so long without peeing.

Paterson: the poem film

March 13, 2017

unknownWe recently saw two films in a row featuring Abbott and Costello.

Those were the names given the aliens in Arrival. And in Paterson we even get a little of “Who’s on first?” (a famous Abbott and Costello routine).

Adam Driver plays a bus driver, named Paterson, in Paterson, NJ. Yes, there’s a lot of twinning in the movie (including several sets of actual twins).images

The film is about poetry. The film is a poem.

Not a drama. It unfolds slowly and quietly. Indeed, the very absence of drama is a salient feature. It’s filled with events the viewer might expect but (spoiler alert) don’t happen:

• The marital blow-up

• The heavily foreshadowed dog-napping

unknown-1• The spurned lover’s bar-room blow-up (which does happen, but fizzles; the gun turns out to be a toy one).

• The cupcake disaster

• The bus crash. (Instead, a mere breakdown. Three people say to Paterson that the bus could have “blown up in a fireball.” But he knows otherwise.)

Paterson is a bus driver who’s a poet. Though very private about it, he takes poetry very seriously. Looming large is William Carlos Williams, another Patersonian, who wrote an epic poem titled Paterson. images-1Paterson reads that, and much other poetry, studies it. But not only poetry, apparently; I was amused to spot a copy of Infinite Jest on his bookshelf.

And he is a very good human being. The film takes pains to show that, while avoiding being saccharine. A rare and welcome departure from the glut of movies filled with human dysfunction and depravity.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts 'n' cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts ‘n’ cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

One disaster, of sorts, does befall Paterson, near the end. But he takes it with his well established philosophical equanimity, and it sets up completion of the film/poem’s arc in a very positive and satisfying way. What my wife calls a “squeeze” at a poem’s end.

Her being a poet made Paterson a must-see for us (her insights helped me with this review). She is also much attuned to eerie connections in life. I’ve mentioned the film’s twinning theme. Afterwards, we have dinner in a nearby restaurant. A couple seated next to us finishes and leaves. Shortly, another couple enters and takes their table. images-2And the new guy is the previous one’s identical twin brother.