Sunday, September 4, 2016

What’s the Deal with the Millennial Generation?

by Michael S. Russo

I’ve just finished reading an article in the New York Times by Ross Douthat that left me more confused than ever about the millennial students that I am currently teaching.

To sum up just a few of Mr. Douthat’s points, members of the millennial generation seem to be living much more prudent lives than those in previous generations:

  • They are drinking, smoking and using drugs much less.
  • They have fewer sexual partners and a lower rate of teenage pregnancy.
  • They are less violent and less prone to suicide. 

But in other ways they are also much less responsible than other generations:

  • They are more likely to live longer with their parents.
  • They are less likely to get married or have children.
  • They more likely to drop out of the workforce.

I found these statistics to be interesting and they seem to support out my own impressions of millennials (which I admit are completely anecdotal).

On the positive side, I have found my millennial students to be more tolerant, more appreciative of diversity, more open to unconventional ideas, and less prone to racism, sexism and homophobia than students that I had taught in the past. They also seem much more ecologically concerned than older generations. I find these changes to be welcome, indeed.

But, I’ve also found that my millennial students have shorter attention spans, less intellectual curiosity, imagination and cultural literacy, and less ambition, drive and stick-to-itiveness than students that I had once taught. They also seem to have more trouble relating to other human beings in an intimate and personal way than earlier students. These negative tendencies, I believe, might have something to do with the overuse of technology on the part of millennials, but this is just a hypothesis. (I can’t tell you, though, how many times during the past five years I have had to use the expression, “Put away your damn cell phones and pay attention.”)

Like many members of my own generation (late baby boomers), I’ve been wondering what it will be like to have adults with these sorts of tendencies running the country in the future. On the positive side, we may have a much more open and tolerant society when millennials are in charge. And that would be a very good thing.

But I admit to also being concerned about having people running things who seem afraid of—or at least uninterested in—long-term commitments and taking on the tedious responsibilities of adulthood. Are we condemned to be governed in the future by selfie-taking, hyper-tweeting, self-fixated, overly-sensitive, perpetual teenagers?

Or am I just being overly pessimistic, like members of all passing generations have been? As Cicero once said somewhere: “Our father’s race more versed in wickedness than were their sires have begotten us, a race more wicked still, duly to beget a even more wicked race.”

Maybe it’s just inevitable that older generations find younger ones to be incomprehensible.  I'm sure that millennials find me fairly incomprehensible as well. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Way of the Skeptic

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 Rhetoric 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 Rhetoric 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 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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Considerations on Death

A. J. Grunthaler

One thing that we can all be certain of is that at some point—today, tomorrow, or in the not too distant future—every single one of us will die. And this is true not just for ourselves, but for every human being who has ever lived or is currently living. Although we can imagine a possible future in which technological advances extend life far beyond the limits that we experience today, it seems unlikely that our species will ever be able to prolong life indefinitely. In this sense death represents that ultimate and necessary culmination of our human experience. The meaning of life, in other words, cannot be separated from the meaning of death. 

Death is usually defined as the cessation of biological functions that sustain the life of a living creature. That seems pretty straight-forward in itself. But death is not just a matter of biology for members of our own species. It’s wrapped up with emotions, beliefs, and rituals that give death a significance that is far greater than most of the other events that occur in the lives of human beings. 

Objectively, death would seem to be the greatest of all the misfortunates that can befall any individual. It signifies the end to our human project—to all the dreams and plans we had for our lives. Given a choice, most of us would probably chose to prolong our lives, even if we had to endure considerable pain and suffering to do so, because with the continuation of life there is always the possibility that things can get better. Death, on the other hand, represents the termination of all of our hopes for this life. 

But does death actually represent the end of our human project, or is it simply the gateway to another possible form of existence? All of the great religions of the world posit the continuation of human existence in another form after death. The religions originating in the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all ascribe to the belief that the soul (the non-material, animating spirit of the human being) continues on in the afterlife. Religions like Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism have a belief in reincarnation or rebirth—the idea that the self or the soul takes on another physical form after death. 

The idea that some aspect of our human personality or identity could continue on after the death of the body is the source of considerable consolation for many people. Perhaps this is the reason why we invest so much effort in devising dignified and often elaborate rituals at the end of life—funeral masses, wakes, shivas, cremation ceremonies, and the like. The goal of these rituals is certainly to celebrate the life of the person who has died, but they perhaps serve the even more important function of providing those who remain behind with the hope that the departed loved one still exists in some form. 

But we also must consider the possibility that the belief in continuation of life after death is a fantasy or illusion created by our species precisely because death is so terrifying to us. So instead of accepting that death represents the end of who we are, we create the myth of an eternal soul that somehow is able to live on after the body has ceased to function. For atheists death represents the complete and total oblivion of the self. According to this view when the body dies, our personal identity dies with it. 

Whether one believes in the continued existence of human beings after death or not, death traditionally was understood to be such a traumatic experience that in the past it was recognized that one needed to be prepared philosophically and emotionally for the reality of one’s own demise. This practice came to be known in antiquity and the Middle Ages as the ars moriendi—the art of dying. In the Middle Ages this practice often involved visiting charnel grounds where the bodies of the dead were allowed to decompose and the creating of gruesome works of art known as danse macabre (the dance of death) to remind Christians of the inevitability of death. 

Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

While today we might view the regular reflection on the inevitability of our own deaths as somewhat morbid, consider for a moment our contemporary attitudes towards death. 

In the past, people often died in their own homes, cared for until the end of life by family members. And after death, those same family members would wash and dress the bodies of their loved ones, which were then often laid out for viewing in the family living room. Aromatic flowers were customarily brought into the house to try, as much as possible, to cover up the smell of the rotting corpse. Those same family members might also have been responsible for digging a grave for their dead relative, putting the coffin in the ground, and covering it with dirt. 

Today, most people die in hospitals, cared for by total strangers. They’re embalmed, dressed, made-up, and laid out in funeral out by morticians. At cemeteries we have professionals now to dig graves, but it’s rarely customary any more for family and friends to be present when coffins are placed in the ground and covered with dirt. So once again, total strangers are paid to do this task. 

Far from being morbid, our ancestors probably had a more sensible and psychologically healthy attitude towards death. In the 21st century, we might try to delude ourselves that death is what happens to other people—to old Aunt Sally, to famous men and women in the obituary section of the local newspaper, or some child dying of malaria in Africa—but death, in fact, is what happens to all of us. We can’t escape it no matter how much we may try to delude ourselves to the contrary. So our best bet is to try to appreciate the reality and inevitability of death and to reconcile ourselves as much as possible with it.

After all, what alternative do we have?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Meaning of the Meaning of Life

A.J. Grunthaler

One of the most fundamental and important questions in the discipline of Philosophy is “What is the meaning of life?” Maybe you’ve never asked this question in precisely the way I just framed it, but if you’re like most people, you’ve almost certainly reflected about the ultimate meaning of your life, even if you’re not fully aware that you have.

Perhaps, one night, while you were alone at home with nothing to distract you, a thought suddenly popped into your head, unlike any thought you may have had before. A crazy thought like this: “What’s the point of it all?” Believe it or not, most people—assuming they’re not completely shallow—will ask a question like this at some point or another during the course of their lives. And this is just another way of asking, “What is the meaning of life?” 

Even if we grant that life does indeed have meaning, another question arises when we consider whether this meaning is the same for all people or whether it varies from person to person. In other words, is the question of meaning objective (applies to all) or subjective (a matter of individual perspective)? If it’s the former, we might call this a “higher” meaning of life—the idea that life has a meaning that transcends our own beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about it. 

But if life does indeed have a higher meaning, this leads to another perplexing question: what exactly is the objective reality or condition that gives life this higher meaning? 

Most human being typically ask the question “Does life have meaning?” when they’re confronted with difficult times—when those they love are sick, suffering, or in pain or when they themselves are sick, suffering, or in pain. It’s at such times that some people begin to think about the possibility of the existence of some kind of Supreme Being or God who gives life meaning. If there is a God, then living according to his purposes (following his will, coming to know or love him, or living our lives according to his plan) would seem to fit the bill for a higher, objective meaning for all human life.

For most human beings, living in most parts of the world up to the present time, this belief in this existence of God—call him Brahman, Yahweh, or Allah, if you prefer—provided everything that was necessary to create meaning in life. Indeed, some form of belief in a Higher Power controlling the destiny of mankind has been part of our experience probably since our species began to develop the ability to engage in abstract thought. 

But what if there isn’t a God? What would that do to the question of meaning in life?

One possibility would be that we’d be forced to recognize that life is fundamentally pointless or absurd. After all, what could possibly be more absurd than to endure all the suffering and pain that are an inevitable part of human existence only to cap off our lives with the stark reality of death—which, in the absence of a God, ultimately means total oblivion. But, not just total oblivion for ourselves. In the end, all of our human projects will be swept away by time, until eventually even our species itself will disappear…as will our planet, our solar system, and possibly even the very universe itself. Confronted with the reality of such oblivion, human life cannot help but seem a bit pointless, can it?

But, even if life doesn’t have a higher meaning or purpose, does this automatically mean that our human lives must be fundamentally pointless or absurd? In fact, we in the West are already living in what is commonly called a post theistic age—an age, in other words, in which belief in God seems fairly unimportant for many people. In fact, the number of people describing themselves as atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated with any major religion has been creeping upward since the dawn of the 21st century, making “non-believer” the fastest growing religion in the United States. 

And yet despite this lack of belief or interest in the existence of God, many individuals seem to find meaning in a whole host of significant activities that are part and parcel of our ordinary human lives. We find meaning in relationships with family, friends, and lovers; we find meaning in the simple pleasures of life and in the beauty—both man-made and natural—that surrounds us; and we find meaning in living lives of virtue for its own sake, rather than out of any external compulsions . We haven’t lost a sense of meaning in the absence of God: we’ve discovered that meaning all around us. Admittedly, this isn’t the kind of transcendent, objective meaning that theists think is necessary to provide purposefulness and value to our human lives. But it is meaning nonetheless. 

Whether our lives have one objective meaning or multiple meanings that vary from individual to individual, the question of the meaning of life is one that is intimately connected with our very humanity. Members of no other species ask whether their lives have meaning or not. In fact, one could argue that it is our very ability to inquire about the meaning of life that separates humans from all other creatures inhabiting this planet.