Tag Archives: Philosophy

Incredibly, today is also Carl Sagan Day

Shell-shocked from the election results, and I need something to believe in right now. Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech has been my touchstone all throughout the writing of this blog, and I have to believe his vision is still one that can inspire and sustain us, even if — as on days like this — its fulfillment still feels heartbreakingly out of reach.

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Humanism and secularism, defined

So what’s humanism? I had a go at this question way back when I started this blog, but this video by the British Humanist Association offers a much clearer introduction:

And from the always-lucid British YouTube user QualiaSoup, here’s a very clear presentation on secularism and its views on church/state separation, gay marriage, and education — as relevant (or perhaps even more so) in the US as it is in the UK:

(via Tim Minchin)

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Living “as if”

Dance as if no one were watching (goes the old proverb, printed on T-shirts and refrigerator magnets everywhere); sing as if no one were listening; love as if you’ve never been hurt; live every day as if it were your last. It’s a cliché with a fundamental and appealing underlying truth — that we should seek to embody what we wish to make real — and it’s been expressed in many ways. Writers and actors talk about pretending to be competent at what they do, until they find that they actually are. Gandhi supposedly said “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” although his more nuanced and complex statement was actually this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Christopher Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, called this approach to the world “living ‘as if’.” Perhaps this year, in the spirit of Gandhi (and of Occupy Wall Street), we should take the idea of living “as if” out of the purely personal realm of “self-actualization” and apply it to as much of our community as we can. Hitchens wrote:

Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that “resistance” in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living “as if” he were a citizen of a free society, “as if” lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, “as if” his government had actually signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic “The Power of the Powerless” because, even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid. You can’t achieve 100 percent control over humans, and if you could, you could not go on doing so. […]

The “People Power” movement of 1989, when whole populations brought down their absurd rulers by an exercise of arms-folding and sarcasm, had its origins partly in the Philippines in 1985, when the dictator Marcos called an opportunist “snap election” and the voters decided to take him seriously. They acted “as if” the vote were free and fair, and made it so. […]

One could add further examples. In the late Victorian period, Oscar Wilde — master of the pose but not a mere poseur — decided to live and act “as if” moral hypocrisy were not regnant. In the Deep South in the early 1960s, Rosa Parks (after some arduous dress rehearsals of her own) decided to act “as if” a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of the day’s labor. In Moscow in the 1970s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn resolved to write “as if” an individual scholar could investigate the history of his own country, and publish his findings. They all, by behaving literally, acted ironically. In each case, as we know now, the authorities were forced first to act crassly and then to look crass, and eventually to fall victim to stern verdicts from posterity. […]

All I can recommend, therefore […] is that you try to cultivate some of this attitude. In an average day, you may well be confronted with some species of bullying or bigotry, some ill-phrased appeal to the general will, or some petty abuse of authority. If you have a political loyalty, you may be offered a shady reason for agreeing to a lie or a half-truth that serves some short-term purpose. Everybody devises tactics for getting through such moments; try behaving “as if” they need not be tolerated and are not inevitable.

Live as if you’re a free citizen. Call out prejudice and unreason as if they deserve to be ridiculed. Vote as if your voice matters. Because this is all true, if we all make it true.

Peace, courage, joy, and Happy New Year.

(Photo by Ted Soqui)


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If I really agree with this, I shouldn’t be blogging about it

Pico Iyer makes perfect sense:

THE average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr notes in his eye-opening book “The Shallows,” in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009 (and the number of hours spent in front of a TV screen, often simultaneously, is also steadily increasing).

The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month. Since luxury, as any economist will tell you, is a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow […] will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.

The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

[…] We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less). And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, “Dancing with the Stars”!), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.

So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen. […]

It’s vital, of course, to stay in touch with the world, and to know what’s going on […] But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.

What more is there to say? I’m logging off for now. So should you.

(Image via Aidan Rowley)

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The 1% don’t get it: “What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens”

Matt Taibbi calls attention to an article at Bloomberg.com in which the much-put-upon billionaires of America frown upon the “imbeciles” of the Occupy movement for hurling abuse their way:

Asked if he were willing to pay more taxes in a Nov. 30 interview with Bloomberg Television, Blackstone Group LP CEO Stephen Schwarzman spoke about lower-income U.S. families who pay no income tax.

“You have to have skin in the game,” said Schwarzman, 64. “I’m not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system.”

Taibbi responds:

But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You’ve got it all riding on how well America works.

You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you’d better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.

And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

The entire ethos of modern Wall Street, on the other hand, is complete indifference to all of these matters. The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government. […]

People like […] Schwarzman […] who think the “imbeciles” on the streets are simply full of reasonless class anger, they don’t get it. Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich.

What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens.

The rest here, and worth reading.

And this is precisely why government matters — good government, independent of the moneyed interests, insuring a fair playing field for all and making sure that America works well for the least fortunate as well as the wealthiest among us. It’s John Rawls’ notion of the “veil of ignorance,” of ordering society as if we didn’t know what position we occupied in it — a call for fairness that is very much in keeping with the demands of Occupy Wall Street. If that movement has accomplished anything, it’s in driving the national conversation towards this very necessary consideration of what principles constitute a just society. And it’s a conversation that needs to keep going.

Once again, Elizabeth Warren:

A caveat: I’ve just finished reading Animal Farm again, and can’t help being haunted by Orwell’s warning about the oppressed throwing off their shackles only to become mirror images of their oppressors (or as Jenny Holzer suggests, “Change is valuable when the oppressed become tyrants”). I don’t think that’s inevitable. With foresight, and self-doubt, and an unflagging commitment to hold our leaders — and ourselves — accountable, may we all have the wits (and the decency) to avoid that fate.

(via Pharyngula. Chart via Mother Jones; lots more here.)

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Farewell to Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens has died.

It seems appropriate to quote here, as I’ve done earlier, something he said in one of his many debates against religion and unreason:

I don’t know if you really think that when you die you can be corporeally reassembled, and have conversations with authors from previous epochs. It’s not necessary that you believe that in Christian theology, and I have to say that it sounds like a complete fairy tale to me. The only reason I’d want to meet Shakespeare, or might even want to, is because I can meet him, any time, because he is immortal in the works he’s left behind. If you’ve read those, meeting the author would almost certainly be a disappointment.

And as I wrote then:

What a tower of courageous, unsentimental intellect. Perhaps our consolation after his death — which will happen sooner or later, after all, to him and to all of us — will be the same consolation he finds in communing with Shakespeare through his works: that Hitchens’ own spoken and written words will remain with us, engaging us in the endless conversation about what is good, beautiful, noble, pure, and true, “the only conversation worth having.”

The words indeed remain. And through them his wit and conviction and ferocious intellect live on.

Here, for instance, is a passage from his Letters to a Young Contrarian; it’s as good a passage as any with which to honor Hitchens’ memory on this day.

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate and annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

I shall leave you with a few words from George Konrad, the Hungarian dissident […]:

Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses. . . . If you don’t like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days.

May it be so with you, and may you keep your powder dry for the battles ahead, and know when and how to recognise them.

Previous posts on Hitchens here, here, here, here, and here.

(Image via Thiago Lins)


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“The meaning of life is to make life meaningful.”

In a video interview for the NY Times, philosopher A.C. Grayling eloquently explains the humanist ethos. Short and sweet.

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