Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Quiet Time

There was an excellent piece this Sunday in the New York Times about the importance of silence:
I'm Thinking. Please. Be Quiet
George Prochnik
SLAMMING doors, banging walls, bellowing strangers and whistling neighbors were the bane of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s existence. But it was only in later middle age, after he had moved with his beloved poodle to the commercial hub of Frankfurt, that his sense of being tortured by loud, often superfluous blasts of sound ripened into a philosophical diatribe. Then, around 1850, Schopenhauer pronounced noise to be the supreme archenemy of any serious thinker.
His argument against noise was simple: A great mind can have great thoughts only if all its powers of concentration are brought to bear on one subject, in the same way that a concave mirror focuses light on one point. Just as a mighty army becomes useless if its soldiers are scattered helter-skelter, a great mind becomes ordinary the moment its energies are dispersed.
And nothing disrupts thought the way noise does, Schopenhauer declared, adding that even people who are not philosophers lose whatever ideas their brains can carry in consequence of brutish jolts of sound.      
continue reading...
As I write this post, a helicopter is circling over my house, dogs are barking outside, cars are rumbling down the street.  It's not the same intensity of noise that people in big cities often experience on a daily basis, but it's damn distracting nonetheless. 
Most people I know, don't seem to mind the constant noise and bustle around them.  They may even feel comforted by it--a sign that they are not all alone in the universe.  In fact, they probably feel strangely unsettled by the experience of silence, because they are so unused to it.  Perhaps this is why we willingly choose to inflict ourselves with unnecessary noise from the moment we enter our homes to the moment we drop into sleep at night.  I even know people who need to keep the TV going all night long just to be able to fall asleep.
Our inability to appreciate and enjoy quite, doesn't bode well, I'm afraid, for a discipline like philosophy.  Philosophy demands that we have ample quite time to ponder the big questions of life in an environment free of distractions.  No great ideas, I would argue, could ever spring from a mind that is inflicted with incessant noise.
No silence, no wisdom; no wisdom, no progress; no progress....Well, I'll leave it to you to finish the rest of this thought.  I'm afraid that I'm far to distracted by all the noise all around me to continue. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Skeptic's Way

By Michael S. Russo
I’ve been teaching philosophy now for over 20 years, and it always amazes me at how gullible students are.  Every year when teaching my philosophy of Leadership course, I come in the first class and inform the students—in a very bad Irish brogue—that I am Fr. Liam McCarthy from County Gallway in Ireland.   I then go on with the prepared script:
“Dr. Russo, I’m afraid, has been deemed ill-suited to teach this class and I’ve been asked to take his place.  What I plan to do is examine the leadership styles of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, his blessed Mother Mary, and the saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church, including, but not limited to Saints Perpetua and Felicity, St. Odo of Cluny, and, of course, the blessed Barengarius of Tours.  Our text will be the Bible, which I plan to teach to you in the original Greek.  Many of you, I fear, will not do well in this course, because you are weak of mind and prone to the frailties of the flesh.  I want you to know that I have no problem failing every one of you, if you fail to meet my exacting standards.  Does anyone have any questions?  Good.  Then let’s begin our class with a prayer taken from the Catholic rite of the dead.”
I say all this with a perfectly straight face, while at the same time trying to the best of my ability to maintain something like a Barry Fitzgerald-style brogue from The Quiet Man.  It’s a ludicrous performance, and no one with any sense at all could possibly believe that Fr. McCarthy could be real.  But the students all do.  And when I can no longer sustain my performance, break out in laughter, and inform them that they’ve been had, most of my freshmen still don’t know how to react:  They sit paralyzed for some time, trying to figure out how they could have believed something so patently absurd to be true.
I know what you’re thinking: how stupid can these freshmen be?  But they’re not stupid at all.  In fact, only honors-level students take my leadership class.   And I would bet that, if you were in this class, you would buy into the reality of Fr. McCarthy, even with his abysmal brogue and his absurd 1950s Catholic worldview.   You would accept that Fr. McCarthy is for real, because, like most human beings, you’ve been trained to accept many things on faith that you have no real evidence for at all.  
For instance,
  • you believe that you were born in a certain place at a certain time to certain parents. 
  • you believe that the world you experience with your senses exists as you perceive it.
  • you believe that this planet that we are on is part of a larger universe that is very, very large and contains many other solar systems.
  • you believe in God and that when you die your personal identity will live on in some form.
  • you believe that when you look into the mirror every morning that the person you see staring back at you is the real you.

Unlike the reality of Father McCarthy, these are all somewhat plausible beliefs, to be sure.  You’ve probably embraced many of these beliefs most of your life and people that you trust and love undoubtedly hold to them as “gospel truth.”  But how do we really know that any of these so-called “truths” are actually true at all? 
Mind Games
Let’s play a few mind games.  For these games to work, you’ll have to put aside all the beliefs about your life that you have taken for granted are true.
We can start with your experience of reading this very text.  Your assumption, I’m sure, is that you, __________________ (fill in your name), are sitting down in front of your computer reading the words that appear on the screen.  But can you really be certain that this is what you are actually doing?  Haven’t you had the experience of thinking that you were enmeshed in some activity—hanging out with your friends, visiting a strange, exotic place, making love to a desirable partner, only to wake up and discover that everything you thought was real was actually nothing more than a dream?  But while you were dreaming, the dream seemed totally and completely real to you, didn’t it?  Well, how do you know that something similar is not going on right now?  Perhaps instead of reading this text on your computer, you are, in fact, in deep REM sleep, dreaming about reading this text.  Can you really be 100% certain that this is not the case (remember, while you are in a dream, everything seems completely real to you)?
Let’s try another mind game, just for fun.  Once again, you are reading this text, imagining that what you are experiencing is real.  But I’m here to tell you that the you that you think is you is not really you, and the world that you think is really real is not real at all.  You are actually a being of a much more highly evolved species than homo sapiens (You have a body only about 4 feet tall, four fingers on each hand, a huge cranium to support your impressive brain, and no icky genitalia, since reproduction of your species is done purely through mental contact).  Every 150 years members of your species go into a coma-like state, called “The Phase”  in order to regenerate, and remain in this state for about five years.  During that time, it’s not uncommon for beings like yourself to imagine themselves as completely different sorts of creatures on strange new worlds.  For example, while you are in your coma-like state, you’ve imagined yourself as _______________ (fill in your name) living in a place called ___________ (fill in your town and country), on a planet called Earth, in a period described as the early 21st century.  You’ve even created a bizarre physical form for yourself that is totally unlike the “real” form that you actually possess (pubic hair…yuck!).  The further along you are in The Phase, the more elaborate the dream becomes until you no longer even begin to question that it’s real.  You establish relationships, develop a career, beget children, etc.  But—and here’s the kicker—you are now approaching the end of your five year sleep cycle and very soon will be ripped from the fantasy reality that your mind has created.  When that happens, everything you experience in that dream-like state will become nothing more than a vague memory that you will eventually forget completely as you resume your “real” life. 
I know that you are probably thinking that both scenarios that I’ve described are completely implausible.  You know exactly who you are, and you know damn well that what you are experiencing at this very moment is precisely what it appears to be.   But can you really be certain that is the case?  In fact, the “certainty” that you possess about just about every aspect of your life is actually more like a belief or conviction—something that ultimately can’t be proven or disproven.  You could, in fact, be sleeping or you could be an alien creature in comma-like state.  How could you ever prove that you’re not?
The Way of the Skeptic
What’s the point of all this, you’re probably asking by now?  The point is to set you on a path that some philosophers have called the ultimate road to self-realization.  It’s called the path of skepticism, and its practitioners—called, not surprisingly, skeptics—argue that true liberation comes from embracing the uncertainty inherent in human life.  Dubito”—I doubt—is the motto of all skeptics, and a truly radical skeptic doubts every aspect of his experience. 
The way of the skeptic is the opposite of that of the dogmatist.  Dogmatists believe they have certain knowledge about the nature of reality, the right way to live, how to organize society, etc.  Their supposed certainty leads to conflict with other dogmatists who also believe that they hold the truth. Aggression, violence, war, and genocide are the end results of embracing a philosophy that holds that one’s own truth is absolute and everything else is error, lies, and heresy.
The skeptic, in rejecting the idea of universal or transcendent truth, avoids the tension and conflict that the dogmatist inevitably experiences when his views run counter to the views of others.  When the skeptic encounters someone with an alternative perspective on reality, he simply acknowledges the beliefs of the other and moves on humbly and graciously. He doesn’t get angry or frustrated, because he has no personal stake in the debates dogmatists love to have among themselves.
The total suspension of judgment that the skeptic has about what is true or false leads to a kind of inner peace that dogmatist can never possess.  Things may “appear” or “seem” to be true to the skeptic, but when he’s shown that this is not the case, there’s no psychic rupture that occurs within him.  His beliefs are recognized to be beliefs, and nothing more, and when new beliefs come along that are superior to the ones he’s previously held, he’s capable of embracing them with a cognitive flexibility that the dogmatist could never even imagine.
Not convinced?  Try suspending judgment for just a week on matters that you’ve always assumed to be true.  For just a week, instead of reacting dogmatically when your beliefs encounter opposition, make an effort to remain open to conflicting viewpoints.  You just might find that your life has become much more pleasant by giving up some of your certainty about the truth…and you also might find that the world around you becomes a much nicer place as a result.


Dr. Michael S. Russo is a Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Molloy College in New York, the manager of The Sophia Project, an online repository of educational resources in Philosophy, and the author of That's Right: An Introduction to Ethical Theory.  He can be reached at mrusso@molloy.edu.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What's The Problem with Pleasure?

It amazes me that in the 21st century, there are still those who honestly believe that there is something wrong with living a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure.  Not so very long ago, Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University, was basically called a slut and a prostitute by Rush Limbaugh for arguing that her university had an obligation to provide contraception as part of its student health coverage.   Fluke was honest enough to admit that she had an active sex life, but wasn’t looking for marriage or to have a family any time soon.    Apparently, in the United States in the 21st century that acknowledgement alone is enough to merit public condemnation. 
But, whatever right wing pundits like Limbaugh might think, Sandra Fluke is not alone in her desire to seek pleasure without attachments.  In a recent New York Times article, it was reported that more and more college-aged women are looking for sexual relationships without any long-term commitments.   It’s interesting to note, however, that none of the 60 women interviewed by the Times would allow their names to be used in the story.  Why?  “Because they believed that talking publicly about sex could come back to haunt them—by damaging their reputations at [their college], their families' opinions of them or their professional future."
But what, may I ask, is so unhealthy or unnatural about the desire for physical pleasure for its own sake?  As a species, we’re hardwired, after all, to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  It’s because sex feels good that homo sapiens were able to reproduce to the point that we now inhabit virtually every corner of this planet.  Our primitive ancestors were also hardwired to seek out tasty sweet and fatty foods that provided them with the nutrients they needed to survive in a fairly inhospitable world.   And, alcohol and opiates, of one form or another, have been part of every primitive society’s rites and celebrations since the beginning of recorded history. 

We human beings, it seems, have always liked our sex, yummy food, and mind-altering substances.  The difference is that our primitive ancestors didn’t have the kinds of hang-ups that we seem to have about the pursuit of physical pleasure.   In fact, prior to the rise of Christianity in Europe, a person would have been looked upon as abnormal if they didn’t have a healthy appetite for things physical.  Various forms of hedonism were prevalent throughout classical society, and the Greeks were so devoted to food, drink and sex that they celebrated the pursuit of these pleasures in poetry and song  (see The Greek Anthology). 

It’s interesting to note that in his discussion of self-control , the philosopher Aristotle considered the inability to enjoy the pleasures involved in partaking in food, drink, and sex, something so unnatural than he hardly thinks that this vice is worth discussing.  As he puts it in the Nicomachean Ethics, “People who fall short with regard to pleasures and delight in them less than they should are hardly found; for such insensibility is not human.”  Say what you want about our pagan ancestors, but most of them took for granted that one of the primary goals of life was to suck as much pleasure out of the marrow of human experience as they could.

So when did we start to develop such a hostility to the pleasures of the body?  The villain here would have to be Plato, who introduced a kind of body-soul dualism that was not before found in such a virulent form in Greek thought.   For Plato the body and its desire for pleasure was a prison for the soul, keeping it trapped in the sensible realm.   Plato thought that it was only by rejecting the sensual lures of the flesh that the soul could achieve its ultimate goal—living in a purely spiritual state, freed from the nasty temptations of the body.

 Naturally, this kind of body-soul dualism greatly appealed to the repressed—and highly repressive—society that sprung up in the Middle Ages.  In Christian Europe the goal of life was complete freedom from the body and its temptations.   As Peter Brown points out in his groundbreaking book, The Body and Society, the medieval Church viewed the body as the root of evil and the pursuit of bodily pleasure as the cause of all sin.   Better to remove an offending organ—as the Church Father Origen did—than to allow the lures of the body to cause one to reject God and his laws.

But we’ve come a long way as a species since the rightly-called Dark Ages, haven’t we?  Apparently not.  There are still those in contemporary American society who would like nothing more than to return us to the kind of society that they naively believed existed in the “good old days” (usually defined as somewhere between 1945 and 1960).  They want all drugs—even innocuous ones like marijuana—kept illegal, women back in the kitchen where they supposedly belong, homosexuality condemned, and sex reserved solely for procreation.  Keep in mind that 40% of Americans describe themselves as social conservatives or Evangelicals, and ascribe to just these sorts of views.

But, thankfully, the pleasure haters among us are becoming a minority in American society.  Younger men and women (those under 30 in particular) don’t see any problem at all with pursuing physical pleasure for its own sake.  Coincidently, this is the same group that includes the largest number of individuals who claim no religious affiliation at all.  The death of reactionary religious superstition, it would seem, goes hand in hand with a more progressive and positive attitude towards the natural needs of the body. 

So the next time you feel guilty about eating that extra piece of chocolate, engaging in a night of hot, passionate romance with a good-looking guy (or woman), or having a few drinks with your colleagues after work, just remember:  these simple pleasures are really all we have in life and we might as well enjoy them while we can.  One day, and that day may come sooner than you think, you may not be able to partake in these sorts of exquisite pleasures.   And how incredibly sad your life will be at that point.