After spending two months redesigning Literary Kicks and migrating it from Drupal 6 to Drupal 7, I asked my wife Caryn what she thought of the new look. "It looks the same as before," she said.
That really made me laugh, because it's true. I spent two months trying out about ten new themes, two different responsive/mobile strategies and at least three crazy ideas about completely reinventing the look and feel of the blog. I then ended up choosing a design/layout structure that strongly resembled the layout and design that was in place before. I guess I don't like to screw with a formula that works.
But, even if the difference isn't obvious, I've made significant improvements in the site's content architecture which will allow me to keep digging deeply into my archives, cross-pollinating by taxonomy and various metadata, and adapting to new reader devices and display formats. Most importantly, the entire site is now fully HTML5. If you don't know much about HTML5, you might have at least caught a glimpse of one of its champions, Tim Berners-Lee, a long-time tech hero of mine, at the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Cal Godot asked a good question in response to last weekend's post. When I use the terms "will" and "desire" in the context of ethical philosophy, am I using the terms interchangeably?
Yes, in a strict logical sense, I am using the terms interchangeably. Both "will" and "desire" point to the same thing, the same mysterious and omnipresent phenomenon of human (and animal) life. Yet there is a world of difference between will and desire.
The difference is not in the thing the words points to, but in the connotations captured along the way. The term "will" calls to mind three provocative philosophical texts that have become classics of the modern Western tradition: Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Presentation, Friedrich Nietzsche's The Will to Power and William James's essay collection The Will to Believe. Thus, "will" connotes European romanticism, existentialism and American Pragmatism. It carries a muscular, vigorous, dramatic and conflict-ridden sense. It feels Napoleonic and Apollonian.
I don't think we really want to solve the puzzle of desire. What would we do afterwards? But the puzzle seems to be impossible to solve anyway, so we can enjoy pondering it forever. Here's a passage that caught my attention in "Variations on Desire", the opening piece in Siri Hustvedt's appealing new collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking.
"Is reading social?" The question has been going around the litsphere, though many who have answered have reached for a middle ground between the disconcerting idea of social (and Internet-connected) literature and the more traditional notion of reading as an intensely private and solitary activity. I don't see much need for middle ground here -- I think the question is an open-and-shut case.
Reading is intensely social, and it's barely anything but social, and it has always been so. I know this because I know what reading feels like: when I read another person's book, I am engaging in a sharing of thoughts with this person. It doesn't make much difference, when I read Moby Dick, that Herman Melville has been dead for a long time. It's not his dead voice I find in the book; to the extent that I am reading him, I am encountering him in full. To read another person's words is to conduct a meeting of the minds. Is reading an intensely private activity? Well, sure, your reading life is private, just like your sex life is private. But it's not the least bit solitary (if it were, it wouldn't be reading, and it wouldn't be sex).
Reading is also social for another reason: almost all books are about people. Specifically, they're about people being social. If you read a chapter or a story that takes place at a dinner party, you are experiencing that dinner party vicariously. You laugh when a character is funny, wince when someone gets hurt, miss them all when they're gone. If the writer you are reading has mediocre talent, you may not experience their dinner party vividly, but if the writer is a master, it may be one of the best parties of your life. It's possible to quibble that this type of imaginary engagement is only social by proxy. But every reader knows it doesn't feel like proxy when we're in the middle of it.
Our search for a great living ethical philosopher has so far turned up empty. We're only at the early stages of the search, having recently examined the work of Alain De Botton and Sam Harris, both of them young trendy philosophers who swing in the TED set. But preliminary results have been worrying.
We like the aesthetic approach of Alain De Botton, who has bold, fanciful ideas about many things. However, a close look shows that artistry may be all he has. De Botton has written books (mostly to polite applause) on moral philosophy, but he appears to be too much of a wonderer, and not enough of a fighter, to make his name in the muscular field of ethical debate. De Botton clearly likes to dress himself up in a philosopher's antique clothes, but one senses that it's all some kind of fetching show. A great philosopher? Not yet.
The young atheist firebrand Sam Harris is refreshingly pugnacious and argumentative, and he can turn a sharp phrase. But he's also unimaginative and unperceptive. He has lately specialized in "rational" Koran-bashing, with the upturned chin of a brave sophomore who isn't going to pussyfoot around this. Reading Sam Harris's angry diatribes about fundamentalist Islam, or about religion in general, one can't help feeling that one understands more about human nature than Sam Harris does, and that Sam Harris ought to be listening to all of us instead of the other way around. A great living philosopher? In his dreams.
After these bruising early results, I decided to get away from the hip young TED familiars and focus next on some heavier weights. I've been reading up on Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Derek Parfit, Slavoj Zizek and Sarah Sawyer, and hope to cover them all soon. However, two separate links to the work of a Virginia author named Jonathan Haidt appeared in two of my favorite blogs, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish and the Maverick Philosopher, and caught my attention. As far as appearances go, Haidt is another trendy young TED-ish ethics guy. However, he is showing signs of a wider mind. Even though he wears the same clothes:
I'm only two chapters into Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, so I won't try to say much about him in my own words today. But many others have recently noticed Jonathan Haidt too, and I'd like to share a few pullquotes.
I'm searching for a bright light of truth among the hip young "public philosophers" selling books today. Last weekend, we admired Alain De Botton's sensitive style but worried that he might be the Martha Stewart of philosophy. This weekend, I'd like to look at a harder-hitting upstart, Sam Harris, whose key ethical work is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
I got off to a bad start with Sam Harris in 2004 when he rose to fame with an angry book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason that identified fundamentalist religion (particularly radical Islam) as a major source of the world's problems. Harris was part of a wave of new atheists, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and eventually Christopher Hitchens, who posited Osama bin Laden as the reductio ad absurdum of all organized religion, a formula I completely disagree with (I'm quite sure that "religious hatred" is only a surrogate for ethnic or national hatred, and I suspect that guerrophiles like Osama bin Laden have little authentic interest in religion to begin with).
So I avoided Sam Harris's early books, but he may be improving. His 2010 Moral Landscape is worth digging into and taking quite seriously. This book lays out an extended argument for the real existence of a concrete and universal moral code that could, if properly expressed and understood, significantly, improve the world. This is the kind of ambition I like to see in an ethical philosopher.
The primary challenge facing Sam Harris in this book is not to define a concrete and universal moral code -- not surprisingly, he resorts to a John Stuart Mill-ish Utilitarian approach -- but rather to show that a concrete and universal moral code is possible at all. Harris presents a clear argument for the positive conclusion here, which I will paraphrase as follows:
On first glance I passed over Your Brain On Love, a Diane Ackerman article on the New York Times psychology blog with a Valentine-ish title that indicated the kind of soft piece I usually skip. But a Facebook recommendation sent me back for a second look, and this time I read further and was excited to find an important, convincing piece about the psychology of love that happens to touch directly on some very difficult and esoteric points about the nature of self that I've been struggling to express on this blog.
Diane Ackerman, whose A Natural History of the Senses I enjoyed years ago, wrote this piece to communicate a fact that isn't widely understood: the emotion we call love has a clear physical and neurobiological presence. This physical presence can be seen clearly on standard brain scans, and the neural signals correlate with verbal surveys of elderly spouses who still gaze with wonder upon their spouses. The fact that love has a strong physical presence in our brains appears to be beyond scientific doubt.
Furthermore, Ackerman explains, the brain regularly changes as a result of the physical affects of loving or being loved. These changes impact every aspect of our conscious and subconscious lives, making each of us deeply dependent, to our very core, to our very sense of self-identity, on our connections with others. Our social selves, it turns out, are the deepest selves we have. Our loved ones provide the basic infrastructure of our minds.
When I write about the concept of the group mind, I'm often misunderstood to be advocating for collectivism. In fact, I would never bother advocating for collectivism, because collectivism doesn't need an advocate.
The impulse to groupthink has us all in its grip, every moment of our lives -- whether we like it or not, and whether we admit it or not. We can try to better understand the ways that social psychology affects the individual decisions we make and the private feelings we feel, but it is not in our power to remove these societal influences from our lives. We might just as well try to survive without breathing air.
In the past week, the story of the murder of young African-American Trayvon Martin by an overzealous "Neighborhood Watch" volunteer named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida has shocked many Americans. The first shock is the injustice of the crime -- a friendly, helpless kid, armed with a deadly Skittle, falling into the crosshairs of a wannabe hero with a gun, a racist eye, and way too much time on his hands.
But George Zimmerman's crime is not an individual crime, and the shadowy fingerprints of the "group mind" are all over this case. Zimmerman was policing a residential area that identified itself as a gated community, and it was his membership in this gated community's "Neighborhood Watch" program that made him feel empowered to shoot at a stranger. When the Sanford police arrived at the scene of the crime, the officers amazingly came to the conclusion that Zimmerman must have been justified in shooting Martin, and even the top leadership of the police force concurred with this decision. What seems at first to be the murderous act of a single deluded man turns out to be the deadly delusion of an entire city.
How would it feel to have been a physicist just before Albert Einstein, or a biologist just before Darwin? I can sympathize with all the dedicated, highly trained scientists who must have toiled in frustration for decades, grasping for insight, groping at patterns, making little discoveries here and there, yet always sensing that they were missing the big idea.
Amateur or professional philosophers today can probably relate, because our field appears to be currently in a state of darkness comparable to physics before Einstein or biology before Darwin. Why do I say this? Well, the big tipoff is the low standing of philosophy as a whole. It's widely considered a quaint and vain hobby, a useless college major that merits half a shelf in every bookstore. We have no famous philosophers, and virtually nobody considers philosophy or ethics important for everyday life.
We are so accustomed to this sad state of affairs that we often forget that societies do not always ignore philosophy; they only do so when the field is moribund. In the half-century before the French revolution, when ethical philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were making powerful discoveries, philosophers were treated as superstars. Similarly, physicists and biologists probably started getting a whole lot more respect after Einstein and Darwin finally broke the ground that needed to be broken, and may not have gotten much respect before. The standing of any intellectual discipline directly correlates to its level of success ... and it's a sad fact that ethical philosophy has been a flop since the dawn of the modern age.
This is no idle or abstract problem; it amounts to the human disaster of a world that fails to comprehend itself. The spiritual, psychological, social and political problems that ethical philosophy are meant to help fix are going unfixed, and modern society has also come to think of this confusion as normal. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
What do the following scenarios have in common?
- A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
- An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
- A family watches TV together.
- Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
- Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
- A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
- A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
- Members of a small town church gather for a weekend's worship.
- A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
- A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
- A classroom gathers for a teacher's lesson.
Let's also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:
What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.
A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find "American Idol". No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal "American Idol", and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.