Tuesday, February 05, 2013 4:30 PM
This article originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
And hold my life until I'm ready to use it
Hold my life because I just might lose it
Because I just might lose it
--from Paul Westerberg's Hold My Life
An essay I've recently published in Reality Sandwich, "An
Esoteric Take on The Big Lebowski," has been very well received. There
are a few works out there, be they novels, movies or even pieces of music, that
manage to make the esoteric, exoteric. Such works rarely surface, though,
because the shallow machinery of the publishing, movie and music industry is
mostly allergic to them. As I was re-reading Lin Yutang's masterwork, The
Importance of Living, I found so many passages that seem custom-made for
the Dude that I thought it might be fun to explore the points of departure and
arrival of both works, in tandem. To do that, I need to start from the
not-so-distant premises that prompted Lin Yutang himself, back in 1937, to
write his book.
Even today, despite the West having gone through an unprecedented process of
secularization, the numbers are staggering: there are 2.1 billion Christians
worldwide; 1.6 billion Muslims; about 900 million Hinduists; and 350 million
Buddhists. Therefore, almost 5 billion people follow the four largest
religions, which have one common trait -- they are life-renouncing.
In a nutshell, the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- see
life as a period of probation in which man, by acting virtuously according to
the doctrine set out by each religion, will earn for himself a place in heaven.
The focus, therefore, is on the afterlife. Life on earth is a series of tests
that must be passed and temptations that must be resisted. Again in a nutshell,
Hinduism and Buddhism, the two major Indian religions, are similar in that both
hold that life is suffering and the only way out is freedom from the endless chain
of reincarnations. The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha
and nirvana respectively, consists of liberating oneself from samsara,
thus ending the cycle of rebirth. Union with
God can then be attained.
Recently an old friend of mine, for years a convert to Buddhism, suffered an
aortic dissection, a life-threatening tear in the aorta that I am familiar with
because my father died of it. When he began to feel sick a friend who was with
him, a medical doctor, rushed him to a hospital, where he was operated on
within minutes. For days his life hanged by a thread in the ICU. His anguished
wife, back at home, organized reunions with fellow Buddhists who would pray and
chant together for him to be spared and then recover. As I followed from a
continent away, my heart went out to him and his family and friends, but in the
back of mind I couldn't stop hearing a nagging voice. It asked: "What
business do Buddhists have in asking to prolong one's life?" It was
incongruous. The followers of the most life-renouncing religion known to
mankind were fervently praying for this one man to cling to life. Mercifully,
the surgery was successful and my friend pulled through, but I still wonder if
his Buddhist wife and friends behaved consistently with Buddhism?
Of course they didn't, and this incident is meant to make a point: almost five
billion people living on this drinkable, edible, and breathable planet of ours
follow religions that, I fear, go against our nature. Normally, we want to
live, not to let go of life. It is only natural, so natural, in fact, that it
seems very strange that this would need to be stated in the first place.
Lin Yutang's world was less populous than ours, but in proportion more
religious yet, especially in the West. Back in his day some pioneers were
exploring the "occult", that more than vague definition that has been
since subdivided into many fields: the Royal Art, Alchemy, parapsychology,
extrasensory perception, dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, out-of-body and
near-death experiences, not to mention humanity's penchant for the most varied
psychoactive substances in the hope that altered states will lead in the
exploration of parallel or otherworldly realities. From all this and the four
major life-renouncing religions I'm bound to infer that by and large we don't
like our lot on earth. Lin Yutang started from the same premise.
Like early man, do we envy the birds for being able to fly? The fish for being
able to breathe under water? Cats for seeing in semidarkness? The list goes on and
on: from a physical standpoint, we're inferior to so many species. But not to
worry, modern man has come up with a number of flying contraptions, scuba
diving equipment, night vision goggles, and many other gadgets that mimic the
abilities of more physically gifted species. And yet the premise stands: either
our adherence to a life-renouncing religion, or, more recently on a large
scale, our multifarious attempts at transcending our very nature and
That we feel distinctly uncomfortable in our own skin is not a supposition but
a statement of fact. Do we feel so chokingly uncomfortable because the first
time we realize that, sooner or later, we are doomed to die, our natural
impulse is to cry? My wife and I have witnessed this reaction in two of our
three boys. When, around five years of age, they understood that life doesn't
last forever, they cried inconsolably, out of disbelief, then anger, finally
fear. This tragic cognizance we carry inside ourselves for our whole life. It's
our congenital memento mori, which kicks in the moment the concept of
time ceases to be a present-tense continuum, as it is during early childhood,
and becomes one of duration, with a precise beginning and end.
For the materialists, those not interested in religions or attempts at
transcending human nature, there are the following bits of ancient wisdom:
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius's "Live each day as if it were your
last;" the ancient Roman poet Horace's Carpe diem, seize the day,
which was reprised during the Renaissance by Lorenzo De' Medici in his famous
poem Canzona di Bacco, Bacchus Song, which begins: "Youth is
sweet and well / But does speed away! / Let who will be gay, / Tomorrow, no one
can tell;" even the ancient Chinese proverb: "Enjoy yourself;
it's later than you think." Many agnostics, atheists, and skeptics have no
better guideline than this to live by, and accordingly try to feast on life,
which, they perceive, is "here today, gone tomorrow."
Lin Yutang offers an approach that goes beyond life-renouncing religions,
daring transcendental explorations, and clichés such as enjoy yourself, it's
later than you think. One thing was clear to him as it must be to so many of
us: being alive, living, matters. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests
why in the ninth of his Duino Elegies, written between 1912 and 1922,
and excerpted here in the translation of A. Poulin, Jr. To the question,
"Why, then, do we have to be human and, avoiding fate, long for
fate?" the poet replies: "Because being here means so much, and
because all / that's here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us / and
strangely concerns us." And a few lines down: "To have been on earth
just once -- that's irrevocable."
How are we to celebrate, then, the plain yet miraculous reality of being alive?
The poet surprises with "Praise the world to the angel, not what can't be
talked about. / You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos /
where he so intensely feels, you're just a novice. So show / him some simple
thing shaped for generation after generation / until it lives in our hands and
in our eyes, and it's ours. Tell him about things. He'll stand amazed
So there it is, straight from the pen of one of the most mystical poets in
western literature: an exhortation to speak to the angel not about grand
emotions but about the world, about things. Some years after Rilke
finished his elegies, Lin Yutang wrote in The Importance of Living:
"As for philosophy, which is the exercise of the spirit par excellence,
the danger is even greater that we lose the feeling of life itself. I can
understand that such mental delights include the solution of a long
mathematical equation, or the perception of a grand order in the universe. This
perception of order is probably the purest of all our mental pleasures and yet
I would exchange it for a well prepared meal." Years ago, when I first
read this passage, I laughed out loud. It was liberating. But where is Lin
Yutang coming from? In another book of his, The Wisdom of China, he
remarks: "The Chinese philosopher is like a swimmer who dives but must
soon come up to the surface again; the Western philosopher is like a swimmer
who dives into the water and is proud that he never comes up to the surface
I'd tend to agree, but there probably is a linguistic reason for this. The
Chinese never developed a proper alphabet, but rather ideograms, or Sinograms,
or better yet, Han characters. The Kangxi Dictionary contains the astonishing
number of 47,035 characters. Compared to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet,
the 23 of Classical Latin and the 30 of the German alphabet, it's evident that
writing and reading in Mandarin is an effort in itself, which explains the
emphasis placed by Chinese on calligraphy.
Ancient Greek, Latin and German have been used by most of the greatest
philosophers of the western tradition, with Latin being the lingua franca of
European scholars for centuries. Inevitably, intellectuals would be tempted to
play around with words -- and they did! Western philosophy is immensely more
voluminous than its Chinese counterpart, but its value should always have been
considered from an historical perspective. No one in his right mind should have
argued over, say, St. Thomas Aquinas's five proofs of the existence of God --
but that went on for centuries. The history of Western (theoretical/discursive)
philosophy ought to have been read like the history of architecture:
philosopher so-and-so built that castle in the air, while his opponent built
this other castle. Western philosophy should be appreciated aesthetically
rather than intrinsically.
Again in The Wisdom of China, Lin Yutang writes: "The Chinese can
ask . . ., ‘Does the West have a philosophy?' The answer is also clearly ‘No.'
. . . The Western man has tons of philosophy written by French, German,
English, and American professors, but still he hasn't got a philosophy when he
wants it. In fact, he seldom wants it. There are professors of philosophy, but
there are no philosophers."
So, what exactly does Lin Yutang prescribe as a philosophy of life? And how
does the Dude, our hero (I haven't forgotten him), happen to behave in
accordance with so many of the philosopher's ideas?
Read the rest of this article at Reality
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Thursday, September 15, 2011 4:32 PM
As we were reminded ad nauseam on every media platform for a week, the mass murders committed on 9/11 continue to have an incalculable impact on foreign relations, world economics, and the broader culture. It’s a certainty the same will be true for decades to come. And while you may feel as though the event and aftermath has been covered from every conceivable angle (including pieces on how the attacks affected professional athletics and may have led to America’s latest recession), a just released, essential collection of essays go beyond the strained headlines and over-boiled melodrama.
The book, Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World (University of California Press), functions neither as a political autopsy nor an emotional anthology. Instead, it examines the tragedy from a philosophical distance that, while far from dispassionate, forces readers to consider the unintentional causes and subconscious effects of violence, both individual and collective.
The eight chapters, written by over 100 visionary thinkers who span generations and transcend borders ethnic (Federico García Lorca, Reza Baraheni), religious (Deepak Chopra, Rabbi Arthur Waskow), and political (Chris Hedges, Henry Kissinger), are strategically broken into two parts. The first takes a “Deeper Look” at the origins of fear and consequences of grief while convincingly establishing the editors’ broad definition of terrorism, which includes acts of aggression against any unarmed civilian, no matter the perpetrator. The ruminations in the second section, “Paths to Transformation,” demand unedited honesty, empathy for all, and raw self-reflection, all essential in the quest of equal peace and meaningful justice.
Given last week’s media blitz, no one could be blamed for wanting to take a deep breath and little down time before diving into such a collection. Keep it on your reading list, though, as the latest anniversary fades and the popular narrative around 9/11 further simplifies the complicated causes and horrific effects. Both historical distillation and timeless psychological treatise, Transforming Terror rivets and moves because it dares to recognize 9/11 not just as a painful tragedy, but an unwelcome opportunity.
Image by Bennett 4 Senate, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 3:00 PM
On the modern battlefield, where civilians and combatants are often indistinguishable, and virtual warfare is increasingly common, soldiers are routinely required to grapple with life-changing (and potentially life-saving) moral dilemmas in a split second.
Prospect magazine reports
that in an effort to establish a consistent code among U.S. troops caught in these ethical crosshairs, West Point is requiring that all of its officers-in-training take a course on “just war” theory, which includes a series of classic, academic conundrums rooted in the writings of philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas.
The first scenario, which will be familiar to most college kids, is called Spur: A runaway train is hurtling towards five unsuspecting people. If you simply flip a switch you can send the train into a spur (a stretch railroad track reserved for loading and unloading) and save their lives. But one man is chained to the spur and will be killed. What would you do?
While you’re mulling that over, consider Fat Man: The same train (or trolley) is about to kill five people. You’re standing on a bridge over the tracks next to an overweight fellow. If you push him off the bridge his bulk would stop the train and save the endangered. The action will, however, kill the “fat man.” Do you shove or don’t you?
According to Prospect writer David Edmonds, “study after study” has established that about 90 percent of people faced with these hypothetical questions could live with switching the train onto a spur, and roughly the same percentage believes it’s wrong to sacrifice the heavy guy.
“What, then, is the relevant ethical distinction between them?” Edmonds asks. “This question has spawned a thriving academic mini-industry, called trolleyology.” And “trolleyology encapsulates the deepest tensions in our moral outlook. To test out our moral intuitions, philosophers have come up with ever more ingenious scenarios,” which attract “some of the smartest minds in moral philosophy.”
One of those wise guys is Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University, who “believes the trolley problem lends weight” to a doctrine of double effect, first established by Aquinas. “Crudely put,” Edmonds writes, “the doctrine allows you to perform and act that has some bad consequences, if on balance the act is good, and if the bad effects are unintended.”
This would explain why the cadets Edmond spoke to while reporting for Prospect were uniformly fascinated by trolleyology and would not kill the fat man. “They explained that the two scenarios represent the distinction between targeting a military installation knowing that civilians will be killed, and deliberately killing civilians. It’s the difference, they say, between how the U.S. and how al Qaeda wage war.”
Officers at West Point acknowledge that creating a class of philosopher-soldiers equipped to think freely carries risks in a field that regularly demands groupthink. And there’s more than a few philosophers who believe the world is too complex to use trolleyology as a way to train armed men and women to deal with the real world.
On the other hand, as more and more wartime decisions are made in front of a computer screen, where officers tell drones and robots who to shoot and who not to bomb, scenarios once considered entirely hypothetical might begin to more closely resemble the real thing.
West Point Public Affairs
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010 2:40 PM
Brian Trent is fed up with the moon landing conspiracy theorists, Obama birth certificate deniers, and natural selection naysayers. In his article appearing in the July issue of The Humanist, Trent laments how Americans “have come to be belief’s poster children. Reactionary, emotional, and almost blissfully willing to ignore facts if they contradict a cemented position.”
According to Trent, we have evolved (or devolved, I guess) into a “culture that thrives on the false principle that ‘all opinions are equal,’ even those without a shred of factual data, documentation, or reasoned methodology.”
The oftentimes scathing tone of the article exemplifies the frustration and astonishment many people experience when faced with certain demoralizing statistics, including that “20 percent of the American people believe NASA faked the Apollo moon landings” and “half of the population believes the world was made in six days.”
Lumping creationists in with members of the 9-11 “Truth Movement” is certainly a bold move, and one that some religious individuals would undoubtedly object to, but Trent tackles this thorny issue with dexterity:
There are many rational people who are highly religious; the two positions need not be in strict opposition. Only when religious sensibilities derail rational decision-making does it become the problem we’re outlining here. Believing that long ago God ordered a father to sacrifice his son is one thing. Believing that God is commanding you right now to kill your son warrants a phone call to the police.
Do I buy Trent’s diagnosis of our national “addiction”? I’m not really sure. When religion is brought into any argument, I am reluctant to touch it with a 50-foot pole, which is a concern that, according to this Utne blog post, I shouldn’t have. You’ll just have to read it and decide for yourself.
Source: The Humanist
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Lisa Zangerl.
Thursday, September 02, 2010 2:57 PM
Thanks to the new book Cycling—Philosophy for Everyone, I now have a term to describe the state of mind I achieve on my daily bicycle commute. This passage comes from the essay “Becoming a Cyclist: Phenomenological Reflections on Cycling” by Danish philosophy professor Steen Nepper Larsen:
The standard bike is a piece of low tech, the nearly divine epitome of sustainability, and an absolute necessity when cities have to be rethought and redesigned without the present profusion of noisy, space-hogging, energy-consuming cars. In contrast to several years of gasoline-engine monotheism and tailpipes, the cycling polytheism will open many possibilities of otherness and gliding unpredictable processes.
The trajectories and escape routes of the bike do not follow the flows of commodities, money, and capital. The mobility of the bicycle reminds us much more of the old dream of being as free as a bird in the sky than a trip on the discounted economy expressway that commodifies our experiences. The freedom of the road contains much more than the modern, “creative,” self-managed workplace and is much richer than the freedom to consume. It is possible to accelerate your bike, but at full throttle it ironically contributes to a deceleration of the accelerating technologies of globalization. Cycling is an alternative version of rich global communication. Far from the Net, the PC, and the mobile phone, the life-world of the cyclist becomes saturated by the senses and overwhelmed by the physical and climatic reality “out there.” No protective walls or phantom digital walls to lean on. Below the helmet one is happy to enjoy what other people might consider to be empty and dead commuting time to be traveled at the speed of light, while moving from destination A to destination B. The biker knows that the road taken is more important than the goal. It’s no fun getting there if the getting there is deprived of quality and lacks adventures. The Germans have an expression for this fertile time-in-between: Zwischenzeit.
Larsen’s essay is one of the high points of Cycling—Philosophy for Everyone, which like every bike ride contains some uneven territory. The volume spills too much ink on Lance Armstrong and on bike racing in general for my tastes, and calling some of the material “philosophy” is a stretch. Still, almost any type of literary-minded cyclist will find something to latch onto in the book—food for thought during your next Zwischenzeit.
Source: Cycling—Philosophy for Everyone
Monday, June 14, 2010 5:13 PM
“The term has become so widely used that it is in danger of meaning nothing. It has been applied to all manner of activities in an effort to give those activities the gloss of moral imperative, the cachet of environmental enlightenment,” Eric Zencey writes in Orion. But the writer doesn’t stop there, no, not nearly: Behold his fantastic essay “Theses on Sustainability,” an 18-point primer and philosophical romp through the meaning(s) of the word.
Tuesday, April 06, 2010 2:52 PM
The word is airports: What comes to mind? The astonishing carbon footprint of a single flight, perhaps? Equipped with a standard guilty-liberal reflex, that’s what pops into my head—so I was sort of thrilled to encounter a little interview in Psychology Today that reminded me of another airport feeling: that of electric, transformative space.
Check it out: Last fall author/philosopher Alain de Botton became Heathrow Airport’s first “writer in residence,” spending a week stationed at a desk in a terminal writing A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. (From the outset, it was an intriguing exercise: Heathrow paid de Botton the equivalent of an advance, while de Botton retained creative control and the rights to the resulting book.) His chat about the experience with Psychology Today doesn’t appear to be online, so here’s the snippet that tickled me:
What do you see when you live in an airport that you don’t see when you’re rushing to make a plane?
Pure anticipation. People who are rushing to their flights imagine a future without having to live it yet. On the ground, we are more likely to admit that the future will not deliver on its ideal prospects. We may never be has happy as we are in the moments prior to takeoff on a trip.
Of course, anticipation is just that. More food for thought from de Botton:
You’ve written that we travel to find happiness but fail to get there.
In Western culture, there’s a feeling that if you change the décor, or the landscape around you, you will easily be transformed into a calmer, happier person. But that’s a crazy, naïve, childish idea.
One problem with modern travel is that we don’t meet people. People who traveled in premodern times would pitch up in a new town with a recommendation or a letter and find themselves having dinner with six interesting people. Today most of us arrive and go to the Statue of Liberty or a museum. We don’t have any human contact.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by Ana Santos, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 3:37 PM
Barack Obama’s administration has not yet passed a health care bill. Nor has it passed a climate change bill. Nor has it closed Guantanamo Bay. There is, however, one progressive issue where the Obama administration has been extremely productive: regulation.
Under previous Republican administrations, John B. Judis reports for the New Republic that the alphabet soup of federal regulation agencies—the EPA, OSHA, SEC, FCC, and others—were systematically dismantled. Industry representatives were chosen to regulate the industries they represented, and budgets were strategically cut. Obama is turning the tide, appointing actual regulators and increasing funding, even in the midst of the recession. “In doing so,” Judis writes, “he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century.”
Source: The New Republic
Friday, October 16, 2009 5:38 PM
The wisdom of crowds has become a modern motif, a “cultural mantra” adopted with zeal across party and discipline lines, Jonathan V. Last observes for In Character. Conservatives clicked with its endorsement of the free market; liberals connected with its egalitarian appeal. “And nearly everyone associated with the Internet glommed on because they understood that it was, in large part, an exaltation of the new medium that placed the World Wide Web near the center of an entire world view,” he writes.
However many good things have come from crowd-sourcing, though, Last cautions that we devalue the wisdom of individuals at our own peril. Sometimes, for example, crowds are fooled: Enron’s stock was valued at over $40/share just months before the company declared bankruptcy, he notes, proffering the parallel tale of six Cornell business school students who, studying Enron for a research project in 1998, “concluded that the company was a house of cards.”
What appears to be crowd consensus can also be skewed by a handful of vociferous or aggressive members. Those rating systems on sites like Amazon.com? “New research confirms what some may already suspect: Those ratings can easily be swayed by a small group of highly active users,” Kristina Grifantini reports for Technology Review.
For Last, the real loss is creativity: “Even if crowds can reach wise decisions, they don’t create,” he writes. “Genius and inspiration are the province of individuals.”
Sources: In Character, Technology Review
Thursday, September 17, 2009 2:39 PM
Many of the most revered love stories involve people taking huge risks and enduring pain and suffering in the name of love. It makes for nice stories, but it’s not a blueprint for enduring love, according to renowned law and philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum in The New Republic. In a review of the new book A Vindication of Love, Nussbaum writes that people probably should take more risks, but love is not increased by the pain and suffering that lovers are forced to endure.
“It is certainly possible that in America in our own era we are seeing a rising tide of risk aversion,” Nussbaum writes. Students seem more calculating in matters of the heart than they were in the 1960s and 70s. In that sense, Nussbaum believes that, “one should be willing to incur risk for the sake of a deep and valuable love.” At the same time, a person shouldn’t move from risk-aversion directly into the grandiose, “crashingly obvious” expressions of love that are so often intertwined with expressions of pain and suffering. Nussbaum writes, “The idea that love is improved by suffering and loss is an adolescent view,” and one best left to Romeo and Juliet.
Source: The New Republic
Monday, May 18, 2009 3:22 PM
What is the point of babies? They’re almost entirely dependent on other people for survival, so much so that they appear to be an evolutionary hindrance, rather than a benefit. Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, thinks she may have found the answer. In an interview with Seed magazine, Gopnik explains that “children are like the R&D department of the human species.”
There may be a tradeoff in the human mind between learning something and applying it, according to Gopnik. Adults are better able to apply knowledge, but babies are better suited for learning and imaging.
Watching children play in imaginary worlds, many scientists have assumed that babies are not as intelligent as adults. In fact, “Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities,” according to Gopnik. “It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.”
Image by Mia Mae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 07, 2009 12:50 PM
Questions of morality and free will are often relegated to the smoky libraries of philosophers. A new school of thought, known as the x-phi, is trying to change that by integrating brain-scanning technology, questionnaires, and field experiments to figure out the fundamental questions of human existence. Writing for Prospect, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton of the delightfully cerebral podcast Philosophy Bites, explore this emerging trend that straddles the line between philosophy and neurology.
Adherents of x-phi, or experimental philosophy, are trying to “to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre,” Edmonds and Warburton write. Instead of relying on traditional philosophical assertions like “we all know…” or “ we can all agree that…” the x-phi adherents rely on evidence to test assumptions about the human mind.
The experiments are yielding thought-provoking results. Edmonds and Warburton explain in depth how x-phi experimentation suggests surprising (though complicated) answers to fundamental questions of free will, responsibility in a world where free will may not exist, and the role that emotions play in clouding human judgments.
A recent finding that could be considered x-phi was published in Science a GoGo, contending that “specific brain circuits and pathways might be responsible for wisdom.” The researchers found that common areas of the brain are involved in moral decision making, conflict detection, and other traits associated with wisdom. New York Times columnist David Brooks has touched on similar ideas, most recently writing about an evolutionary approach to morality.
The popularization of x-phi also attracted plenty of detractors. Many question x-phi’s reliance on technology like brain scans. Current MRI technology is too crude to yield meaningful results, according to philosopher and medical scientist Raymond Tallis quoted in the Prospect piece. If an MRIs can’t differentiate between physical pain and social rejection, which both light up the same areas of the brain, they can scarcely be relied upon for meaningful real-world philosophical insights.
Criticism aside, the school of thought continues to gain adherents. There are now x-phi blogs, books, a logo (of an armchair on fire), and even an anthem posted on YouTube. Edmonds and Warburton write, “If philosophy can ever be, x-phi is trendy.”
Monday, January 05, 2009 1:04 PM
In its January 2009 issue, Shambhala Sun is “Celebrating 30 Years of Buddhism in America” along with its anniversary (1978-2008). Among the thoughtful offerings: Senior editor Barry Boyce chronicles the dramatic changes Western Buddhism has undergone since it was introduced to the United States.
Marcia Z. Nelson reviews some of the most significant Buddhist books from the past 30 years, such as The Art of Happiness (1998), a Eastern-philosophy-meets-Western-psychology bestseller coauthored by the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard Cutler. Nelson also singles out Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) and Full Catastrophe Living (1991) as two books that brought mind-body meditation into the mainstream.
Another article—"What's Next?"—assembles thoughtful predictions from an array of Buddhist thinkers (excerpt only). “Just like pouring water from one container into another, this formless wisdom may be transmitted from one country, culture, and language to another by way of the cultural forms and conventions that contain it,” writes scholar and meditation master Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.
Image by alicepopkorn, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008 10:52 AM
“Are you concerned about internet addiction?” a woman asked a panel of internet entrepreneurs, including Craig from Craigslist, at the National Conference for Media Reform.
“No,” the panel answered resounding. Of course they weren’t concerned. The business models for companies like Craigslist depend on people with internet addictions.
Many in the media, however, fret that the internet is rotting people’s brains. In the cover story for the latest issue of the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr argues that Google is making human knowledge more superficial. Once upon a time, people spent hours poring over enormous novels, but today people just skim headlines. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” Carr writes. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
In spite of the neo-luddite undertones of his argument, Carr makes some interesting points about how the medium of information changes the wiring in people’s brains. Socrates once believed that the written word would lead people to forget more information, since people tend to forget what they aren’t forced to remember. Carr writes, “Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted.”
Other writers have taken a more hysterical tone, lamenting the effect of the internet on culture. In the book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen called the digital revolution, “ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule… on steroids.” In a point-counterpoint for the Guardian, Keen wrote that the internet produces the “dumbing-down of culture.” Since publishing his 2007 polemic, Keen admitted to the Futurist that he’s “more optimistic now,” but still sticks by his argument that the Web 2.0 is bad for society.
Railing against technology’s interminable advance seems like tilting at windmills, but now is a good time to consider the internet’s effect on human knowledge. Writing for the Boston Globe, Drake Bennett calls attention to the enormous influence that Google has over people’s intellectual lives. Since Google has emerged as the dominant search engine, the website has become the primary way in which people organize the internet. Bennett quotes Greg Lastowka, an associate professor of law at Rutgers, who wrote, “Google's control over 'results' constitutes an awesome ability to set the course of human knowledge.” Even if that knowledge is making people smarter, and not more stupid, handing control over that information to a single company—albeit one with a mantra of “don’t be evil”—can be dangerous.
Image by Jason Cumberland, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008 5:00 PM
I’ve always thought philosophy got a bum rap in the cool department. Pipes are cool. So are full beards and hemlock. Heck, having thoughtful ideas about the world is cool. In an article in Philosophy Now, William Irwin makes a case for philosophy’s coolness, or at least for its relevance in regard to American popular culture. Irwin has made a career of “democratizing philosophy,” editing books that examine and contextualize pop culture phenomena, such as Seinfeld, The Simpsons and The Matrix, within the realm of philosophy. Irwin is careful to point out that, by offering up philosophy to the masses, he is not attempting to dumb it down. His is not a postmodernist interpretation of philosophy or culture, where all parts are necessarily equal. Rather, Irwin takes a democratic, accessible approach to exploring philosophy, with a goal of increasing the collective understanding of a notoriously dense area of study.
Alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave, Irwin writes, “Those who criticize people for being immersed in popular culture but show them no way out and provide no motivation to seek one, are like escaped prisoners who simply sneer at those still stuck in the cave, haranguing and ridiculing them. Why would they listen?”
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