The current writing project and plans for this summer

•May 17, 2016 • 2 Comments

My desire to write this summer is born simply out of a demand within me that needs to write and explore my own perspective of the world. My own philosophy. For well over a decade I have been frustrated, never finding the space at the same time that I had the desire, or vice versa. For much of this time, other projects have consumed the time I had. Collaborations with others took up my summer. And they were good projects. But for the past two years I targeted this summer as a summer when I could focus on something that was strictly my own. To feed a craving I have had for too long. And to understand better the direction of my life going forward.

The goal for this summer is to write a complete book, but not a finished book. I do not yet know exactly what this book will look like. But its goal is to set out the architecture of my philosophy: my system of beliefs, motivations, foundations, skepticisms, and whatever else comes my way. It will cover ethics, teaching, and a naturalist spirituality. The goals for the writing project are these:

1. I will find my voice once again. I had a voice when I was in undergrad. But from years of learning an immense amount, and from thinking about all the ways in which I have re-thought how to pursue philosophy, I lost my voice long ago. I haven’t had the chance to exercise my writing legs in a long time, so I hope to find that once again.

2. To etch out the basic form for my whole way of thought, and to not burden myself too much with questions of audience or critical analysis. I don’t imagine this will be a clean or critical work. I am trying to create something to work on in the long term. My goal here is to etch out the rough shape of a sculpture, and then over the next few years to chink away at it by reading other philosophers, applying logical criticism and analysis, editing the writing, and elaborating on arguments that assume too much or need more explanation.

3. To have a clear idea of what I will work on during my sabbatical. I will be submitting my sabbatical proposal during the winter of 2017. If it is approved, I will take a sabbatical either in the fall of 2017 or, more likely, the spring of 2018. Combined with the summer months, that is about 9 months of time that I can devote to this or related projects. Ideally, I will have written a draft of my proposal by early August.

4. For the time being, I will write sections of the book on my blog–hopefully one per day at minimum, along with related reflection pieces like this one. I will post these on Facebook and perhaps gain some readers. I am doing this because, for better or for worse, I am encouraged to write when I know people may read what I’m writing.

5. Periodically, I may go back and re-write posts if it is clear how they need to be cleaned up. But this is not a priority.
For better or worse, I am a philosopher. I have the heart and passion of one. I may not be a good one, but that is what I am. Only a few things are capable of capturing my interest as completely as philosophy. Nothing feels as fulfilling as philosophy. And in every other pursuit, I always feel like I am imitating something that I can never understand.

In many ways, I have let myself down over the past ten years. Though I managed to land a tenured job teaching philosophy, and consider that an important victory, I always understood that not as the goal but as the most important stepping stone for my goal. With the tenured position, I am capable of being funded and having some time off every year to pursue my deeper interests. Since I achieved tenure, my drive has decayed. I tried my hand at a number of other projects, but I can rarely maintain my drive and enthusiasm.

This summer is the best opportunity to make forward progress on my primary goal: to create my philosophy. I am filled with self-doubt and the echoes of criticisms others have made against me. But I am ready to ignore all of that and simply write. I believe writing a philosophy will help me know myself better, allow me to understand how to speak my thoughts better, and provide me a framework in which to think.

Perhaps oddly, I am motivated by these words of Nietzsche, from Beyond Good and Evil, sections 5 and 6.

“What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are–how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness–but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish–and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration”–most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract–that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize “truths”–and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself…”

“Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.”

For years I have craved to write something entirely to satisfy my curiosity and explain how I see the world. I have been incapable of explaining it in one go, and when I try it comes out broken and sounding like nonsense. I have been especially frustrated in dealing with other philosophers. Why is this so? It is possible that I’m simply off my rocker, incapable of swimming with the other philosophers. That when I speak, their greater appreciation for the subtleties of logic and the history of philosophy exposes me as yet another crank with half-formed ideas and too oblivious to my shortcomings. It could be that. Or it could be that I don’t yet know how to talk about what it is that I want to talk about, and that perhaps if I can simply figure out how to say it, and give myself the space to do it, then I will learn how to talk.

The first alternative is useless to accept. I have a deep craving to explain myself, and that won’t go away. If I accepted the first alternative, I’m simply accepting that I’ll be frustrated for life. It may be the more truthful option, but that is not an option I want to live by.

The second alternative may be prideful, but it is the only alternative I can accept.

Some Small Thoughts on the Future of Spirituality

•May 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

What is spirituality? Is it worth understanding? Nowadays, it is out of vogue among academics and intellectuals to be spiritual, but there are still plenty who are.  The problem, for myself at least, is that those who consider themselves spiritual often state things or believe things that make claims about how the world operates, and yet those claims are scientifically indefensible or run against well validated scientific claims. Or they adopt positions claiming scientific backing when there is none.

Suppose we accept that a significant number of people have had spiritual inclinations. And they crave a spiritual life. Is there a recourse for spirituality that is grounded, or at least in agreement, with the most careful and well-validated of scientific results?

Is there a spirituality that does not depend on the existence or functionality of “spirit” in the world? That does not depend on some supernatural tint to the world?

Is there a form of spirituality for which a physicalist can accept without abandoning their other philosophical claims?

Suppose many of us–or all of us–have richer and wholer lives when we embrace something within spirituality. Can we do so in a large scale without creating rifts between how we understand spirituality?

What is the essential psychological quality or experience of spirituality?

Does spirituality depend on ritual?

Does spirituality have anything to do with religion? Or, like many other things, is spirituality something that can be understood from a non-religious perspective as well as , or even better than, religious-tinctured spirituality?

Do people always mean the same thing when they say they are spiritual but not religious? Or religious but not spiritual? One gets the sense that “religious” means in this case membership or identification with one of several institutions or traditions, like the Catholic Church or the Jewish tradition.

Suppose it is something like this: spirituality is not driven by any mystical connection between the self and the world, but rather that it is strictly the perception of how one understands one’s place in the world. Perhaps it is strictly a choice, or maybe a feature of our cultural way of thinking that has us belong or not belong in a certain way to the world.

Perhaps spirituality is an intellectual exercise rather than an intuitive one.

If we wish to live in a world in which more people cared about grounding themselves in a non-supernatural outlook, which embraced a more scientifically validated naturalism and skepticism, that strived to live and think by utilizing Occam’s principle of parsimony– can we still find a meaningful and satisfying spiritualism?

I meet people who are exceptionally resistant or deaf to spirituality. I was and perhaps still am. Is it a prejudice inspired by observing a people who proclaim their spirituality, but also spirituality’s dependence on objects like crystals, stones, or the conduit of “energy” that results in organizing one’s furniture in a certain way?

The “enlightened” atheists since at least the 18th century have sometimes stated that religion is an archaic habit, and that it will slowly weaken as we advance. Newer atheists of the past decades have gone so far as to claim religion will someday be something we’re only exposed to in museums.

Perhaps many traditions and beliefs among spiritualists are fated to wither. But suppose it is true that a significant portion of humanity craves some sort of spiritual life. Even if the things they/we have come to believe are not true, does that necessarily mean that spirituality is not something to be examined, that perhaps something essential and valuable can be found that is satisfying for our future, and that does not call the more skeptical, atheistic, physicalist among us to abandon our beliefs?

Maybe this is the way to describe it: spirituality points to a mode of human perception that is a part of the full human experience. But because of how ideas can often be associated throughout the course of history, spirituality has become deeply associated with ideas whose time has past. And that a skepticism is perhaps the thing we need to disassociate those ideas, to lose those ideas whose time has past, and to find what is valuable in what was left.

We have encountered this progress with ideas many times before: ancient ideas that persisted through time, but were often dismissed because they conflicted with newer beliefs. But then some thinker comes along and understands the old idea was a complex one, with many tightly associated ideas. And that by loosening the knot of those associations, we can better release the valued ideas from the old, and make the worn fresh again.

Part II: Life is Inhaling

•May 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

This builds from the previous section, in which I concluded by proposing the following:

“”Life” is a concept used to designate a particular sort of process–a large set of processes–by inorganic, non-living matter. The processes are huge in number, and tiny: at a low level, it is composed of cells moving nutrients, splitting, transferring other material, processing resources, or transporting electro-chemical signals.”

That section sought to paint a picture of a certain sort of understanding what life is– from a nominalists perspective. It sought to show what life is devoid of the binary concepts of “life” and “non-life.” There is far more to say about that picture, but for now we move on.

Life is not merely the process that occurs within itself. Life as we know it is in a constant state of inhaling the world. We breath, and we pull in the air around our mouth and nose. A plant pulls in air, much more gently, from all around it. We drink and eat, and we pull in water and food through our throat.

As these substances are pulled from where they were and move down our throat, diverted to lungs and stomach, or sometimes directly into the bloodstream, they soon become a part of us. The destiny of a portion of the air around my mouth is to become a part of me, as the O2 molecules move into my body, are extracted from the remainder of the air in my lungs, and then transported into my bloodstream. The O2 then travels through my body until it finds a temporary home, bonding with a significantly larger Carbon molecule, and is then transported back out, entering the lungs once again, and moving out. The eating of food is the consumption of a variety of molecules, but primarily those same large carbon molecules. That too is extracted, this time from my intestines, and gets pushed about my body to be used as a building block of my body. Other nutrients find their places, and the wasted molecules or useless molecules eventually make their way out of another portion of my body.

Looked at in this way, the body is materially attached to the world, a conduit of a variety of molecules that enter, are processed in the eddies of my bodily causes, and eventually exhaled. In this way, we understand that the body is connected deeply to the world: not in some mystical form of new age energy, but in the most material of ways, subjugated absolutely to the laws of nature–which are best investigated through the sciences.

Concluding Proposition: 2. Life involves the inhaling of a variety of matter from around an organism, as well as its excrement. The terms ‘inhaling’ and ‘excrement’ are metaphorical, and apply to how an organism is determined in its existence by external causes, and how the organism causes the movement of matter to leave the body and enter the space around it.

Part I: Life is not a thing. Life is a process.

•May 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

How is life different than non-life?

Organisms are composed of atoms, and only of atoms. A carbon atom is not alive, not remotely. No atom is alive. Our organs are composed of cells, cells composed of molecules, and molecules composed of atoms. There is nothing else. We are composed of nothing but non-living atoms.

Still, we are alive. There is life. How can we understand it?

After we recognize that materially, we are composed of nothing but non-living things, we can begin to understand life in a variety of ways. But which way we choose to understand it is dependent on our habits of thought–our metaphysics, our traditions, our naive speculations. Philosophers have made a variety of sophisticated and subtle arguments for many of these ways, and they are worth studying if one finds it interesting and satisfying.

A wooden table is composed of a board and four legs, or some variation of that. And the legs and board are composed of molecules. The molecules are composed of atoms. Atoms are not tables. So the table is composed entirely of non-tables. There is nothing in the carbon atom within a wooden leg that resembles a table. Should we say that a table is not really a table?

There is no single right answer, because our answers can work at a variety of conceptual levels, and each level would allow for some answers better than others. In this sense, we can speak in otherwise confusing terms: this is both a table and a not-table.

But when we declare that a table is a table, we are dependent on more ideas and concepts than we would be if we simply declared that what appears as a table is simply an accumulation of particles that are mind recognizes as table. There is not inherent existence of the table. The termite burrowing through the table is not burrowing through a table–it is simply eating the wood that is there. The particles are not dependent on our mind–but the table is.

Except insofar as particles are mental constructs too: attempts by our mind to grasp and rationalize the building blocks of the material world. But the atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and there is nothing in a proton that resembles an atom…

So what, then, is life? We can choose to understand it in a variety of ways. And perhaps we strike closest to “Truth” if we train ourselves to see it in a variety of ways, rather than adhering to one, dogmatically, as if there were no other alternative. When I listen to people speak, we nearly always do so as if life were a thing, a separate category. If this is true, then it follows we should give greater consideration–as one of many possibilities–that insofar as we are “life,” we are more concepts than unique things.

But what sort of thing is life at the material level? Surely, it is more than a mere idea.

Life, I offer, should be thought of not as a thing, but a motion. And all its value is built on this peculiar motion. It is not necessarily the motion of our bodies, for different species have drastically different capacities for such motions, and many non-living things can move as much or more than most living things: the wind, ocean, and stars may appear life-like to some of us, and some say things like, “the wind is alive,” but this is merely metaphorical or forgets the wonder of life. Life’s peculiar and special movement is in our interiors, in the unimaginable diversity and complexity of billions or trillions of microscopic movements, overwhelmingly in harmony.

To open not just one’s heart, nor just one’s mind, nor just one’s intuition–however those are understood–but the whole of one’s self and attend to the unimaginable flux of the movements beneath one’s skin–and the skin itself–this is to understand what life is. It is not a distinct thing. If I sit in my room all by myself, I am different from all these things around me not because my atoms are special or that my thing-ness is inherently privileged or containing some special moral status. My body is unique and separate because of these material motions–the billions of forces within my cells and bloodstreams, slowly pushing around nutrients, splitting and cleaning, pumping mindlessly away. This is the beauty of life: not something that is visible on the surface, not something that is easily grasped by a concept, but in the ocean-depth of small movements.

Concluding Proposition: “Life” is a concept used to designate a particular sort of process–a large set of processes–by inorganic, non-living matter. The processes are huge in number, and tiny: at a low level, it is composed of cells moving nutrients, splitting, transferring other material, processing resources, or transporting electro-chemical signals.

This was a brief exposition, not a definition. One of the requirements for a adequate definition is that both includes the term being defined, and excludes everything else, so that the definition points only to one thing.

Thoughts on Summer’s Writing

•May 8, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Summer break begins in less than one week. My goal is to invest my time and effort into writing. What will I write? I don’t know exactly, though I’ve considered many things. Thinking in long-term plans, I should have a sabbatical in two years, in 2018. That sabbatical needs to be devoted to the completion of a large project. I have even less of an idea what that will be. Before I have sabbatical, I need to submit a sabbatical proposal, due around February of 2017. My primary goal for this summer is to have a clear idea of what that sabbatical proposal will be, and perhaps just write it.

As far as what I want to write this summer, I have thoughts both about the content and the style. It has been many years since I’ve been able to devote myself to writing about the things I most want to write about. A book about ethics, Spinoza, education, and democracy. I want to try my hand at an academic article, but the scope of that must be much narrower than those four topics combined. But perhaps an academic article is not what I’m best for.

I imagine a work like Pascal’s Pensees, or Montaigne’s Meditations. A collection of thoughts, loosely related, not declarative, but rather therapeutic for the reader. Pascal spent years writing thoughts in his notebook, under one of at least 27 different headlines. Some thoughts were a mere poetic sentence. Others were arguments ranging over multiple pages. At some point, he cut his notebook into pieces and organized his thoughts according to these headlines, and assembled them into a book. Each thought, or pensee, can stand alone. But they also fit together. They often cover the same ground again and again, and utilize the same metaphors.

Perhaps this is my style too. And perhaps this would be best. I believe I do teach something worthwhile for the students in my class, who are willing to listen, engage, and read. I offer very little to students in a single day. It is all done in context of the larger work of the class. One possible goal, which I fancy, is to write a book that simulates the best version of a student taking many of my classes.

What exactly is it that my classes teach? In a way, I hope the answer is “nothing.” I do not want to have an influence on what a student thinks. My goal is for my students to have a better understanding of how to examine their own beliefs, to find joy in that, and to develop a sense of joy in reading philosophy and other types of works for the same goal.

More than anything, I suspect I simply need to write something that brings me the sense of satisfaction I crave in writing something that reflects the best of my intelligence, insights, and experiences. If I find an audience, that is all the better. But the best version of myself does not crave that audience: it must be driven by a desire to express myself fully and deeply.

Perhaps something like the works of Pascal, except written from a 21st century perspective, with my thoughts rather than Pascal’s.

Walking

•April 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I have done more walking in the past four months than I have ever consistently done before. I live about five miles from where I work, and in the coldest months I was walking 4-6 times, in one direction or the other. By the time the weather warmed up, I was in better shape than I had ever been at winter’s close.

In the past I had been annoyed with walking. It takes a long time to get decent exercise, and running felt more efficient. I enjoyed running more. But something took hold of me. I fell in love with long walking that ate up chunks of the day because it freed my mind, let it wander in a more relaxed way. I think while I run, but because I am constantly struggling against mild pain, my thoughts are more jumbled. With walking, my mind can wander with greater ease.

I find walking best–and running too–after I have read an interesting passage or chapter in a book. It serves as a stimulant for my mind.

Walking is the philosopher’s exercise. Patient, stimulating, but not intrusive on thought. It favors a mind that wants to reflect, roil a problem in one’s mind.

The affect of a few weeks of walking feels surprisingly excellent too. Stronger legs, a greater willingness to move about, a thinner waistline. Laying in bed feels healthier, which is a strange thing.

Yes, those benefits come with any exercise. But as I get older, my body more easily slips into sloth. Walking allows me to combine a number of different important activities in a way that is efficient in a way that it may not have been a few years ago.

There is also the benefit of exploration. In the mornings, when I need to leave early and be to work at a certain time, I walk as directly as possible. But in the afternoon, I look around. And I notice architecture and small bits of artwork that I have never seen before in this city. I see my fellow Chicagoans, get a better sense for how a few parts of Chicago move.

And the time invested in moving about and observing the city makes me feel much more connected to it. It makes “my Chicago” more than just my apartment, my workplace, and my social hangouts. I learn to understand the land of Chicago better.

I do of course still love running, and my favorite days have been when I do both a 5+ mile walk, followed by a 5+ mile run. And by mid-summer, I hope to take advantage of my flexible schedule to be trekking 30 or more miles on some days, and feel that sweet exhaustion.

•March 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I stumbled upon an art criticism piece today. It was written by an advanced graduate student who I knew years ago. My experience was mostly one of recalling humanities criticism papers from many years ago. I hated it then, but it felt refreshing today.

It frustrated me years ago, because I could not see it’s utility or it’s verification, and I was being judged through my school on whether I could see those things. But when I read it today, it felt refreshing, new, and enlightening.