Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Terrible Game of Golf

I played golf today–my occasional escape from the heaviness of writing about the meaning of life. My normal partner, a pleasant seventy year old gentlemen and I were paired with two brothers. While one of the brothers was friendly the other began mouthing expletives from the first shot onward. He quickly explained the reason for his terrible play was that he had already downed two glasses of whiskey for breakfast!

He spent the first few holes loudly cursing at the players in front of us, yelling that there weren’t fast enough–fortunately they didn’t hear him. Actually they were fast and excellent player, and within a few holes his incredibly poor play left us well behind them–the marshal had to tell our group to speed up. My drunk playing partner responded by spending an inordinate time in the woods on the next hole looking for a ball that was not going to be found, while the rest of us just kept walking and the group behind us waited on the tee–probably murmuring their own expletives.

The drunk also spent a large part of his time verbally abusing his brother who tried his best to stay sane. By the end of the round the younger brother was carrying his clubs because evidently his drunk brother had taken to throwing his brother’s clubs out the golf cart–one of his clubs had been broken in half.

Of playing with his drunk brother the younger brother told me, “well you get use to it.” My older friend said he wouldn’t play with that fellow unless he had surgery–to have his mouth wired shut–and that the drunk must really hate himself. I did hope that throughout the round he might sober up, but the supply of fresh beer made sure that didn’t happen. But it was obvious that the alcohol was a symptom of a deeper problem–this man was a horrific human being. I wanted to quit and in retrospect should have, but I hated to leave my friend in this company alone.

It was the single worst experience I have ever had on a golf course. By the time I picked up my wife from work I needed a drink, and drank a rare glass of wine with dinner. And I’m still suffering late tonight from imbibing all that toxic psychological waste. The lesson. We have to tolerate each other in life, but if we have a choice we shouldn’t choose to be abused.

 

Life is Fleeting

Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

I recently scribbled this quote on my youngest daughter’s birthday card. Just her luck, her father is a philosopher! Seriously though the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life is a basic tenet of Stoicism and Buddhism, a basic motif of Proust and Shakespeare. What is it about the passing of time that is so compelling yet disturbing, and what can we learn from it?

An 80 year life span is a 960 months or about 29,000 days long. Think of that, an entire life. If you are middle-aged and will live another 40 years that’s only 480 months or about 15,000 days. And for someone my age with a life expectancy of maybe 20 years, that’s 240 months or about 7,000 days. This is shockingly brief.

Part of what is so compelling about this brevity is that this stream we are floating down, slowly, inexorably, and without our control or consent is … life. We are thrown into the world, imagine endless possibilities if we are lucky and then, suddenly, time has passed. We can’t stop it, rewind it, or fast forward it even when we want to. What of our destination? Looking back on almost 60 years of living I feel a kinship with Yeats:

When I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had … my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.

Perhaps this is what’s so disturbing about time. It refers to a now unreal past, a vanishingly short present, all while leading to a future that never arrives. Perhaps something is just amiss in life, and part of that something manifests itself in time’s flow. Personal immortality has been proposed to ameliorate our worries. But I reject the comfort of charlatans, of purveyors of salves. As Diderot put it: “Lost in an immense forest during the night I have only a small light to guide me. An unknown man appears and says to me: ‘My friend blow out your candle so you can better find your way.’ This unknown man is a theologian.”

Today we have an endless variety of cults and demagogues from which to choose. But I reject them. Instead I will keep my candle, my little light of reason, even though I am lost in time. No longer in the Dark Ages, I will not be guided by the blind. I will be, as Buddha counseled, a lamp unto myself.

Intelligence Augmentation

(This article was republished in Humanity+ Magazine, April 30, 2014)

Yesterday’s post argued for the moral and intellectual augmentation of human beings. I’d like to add to my thoughts on intellectual augmentation, saving the more controversial moral issues for later.

I have always argued for the urgency of increasing human intelligence. What has made the issue even more obvious are my recent experiences as a full-time researcher untethered from the demands of a large teaching load. As I’ve encounter new thoughts and thinkers, I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge and information in the world. It isn’t possible for a single brain to assimilate it all, or to accommodate to the little that one assimilates. If you desire a comprehensive view of reality, this is depressing. Not only can’t I read all that is—I believe Milton was the last person with that goal—I can’t read everything of interest to me, or all of philosophy or a subset of philosophy. And this is to say nothing of all the fields that directly impact my work, especially the sciences. But if relevant information is out there remaining hidden or undiscovered, then one’s conclusions are incomplete.

Still more knowledge leads to better conclusions, so the more we have the better. This is probably the best we can do until we have implanted chips in our brains to increase our memory and computing capacities, our imaginative and creative capabilities, or until we experience some form of a global brain with access to all existing, and progressively evolving, knowledge, or until education itself becomes exponentially more effective. Or perhaps something as yet unimaginable will expedite our intellectual development.

For now without certain knowledge, we live not being sure. Yet the imperative to increase our knowledge is as strong as ever. As Aristotle noted more than 2,000 years ago, knowledge is an unlimited good. It is not sufficient for human flourishing, but it is necessary. After all it is truth that sets us free.

We Must Evolve

 (This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, April 29, 2014)

To better the world, humans need to be more intelligent and moral. They must evolve.

In the intellectual realm we need to utilize technology to augment our intelligence (IA) by any means possible—including education, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence (AI). We also need to use technology in the moral realm. This includes controversial techniques like implanting moral chips in our brains. What does making ourselves more moral entail? After reading, teaching, and writing about ethics for almost thirty years, it is clear that the answer to this question is controversial. But I think the essence of morality lies in understanding the benefits of cooperation and the costs of ethical egoism. This is illuminated in the “prisoner’s dilemma (PD),” which reveals that we would all do better and none of us would do worse if we all cooperate. This insight also helps resolve the multi-person PD known as the “tragedy of the commons.” In this version of the dilemma, each acting in their apparent self-interest brings about disastrous consequences for the rest. The effects of situations with the structure of a PD resonates throughout the world in problems as diverse as insufficient public funding, to threats of environmental disaster and nuclear annihilation.

But of course knowing that we all do better if we all cooperate is undermined by the fact that each does better individually if they do not cooperate regardless of what others do. (At least in the one-time version of the interaction; in the n-person game this solution is not clear.) Hobbes’ solution was coercive governmental power that ensured individuals complied with their agreements. Other solutions include disablement strategies where the non-cooperative move is eliminated. Ulysses having himself tied to the mast of his ship so as not to be seduced by the sirens is an example of disablement. It may be necessary to wire our brains or utilize other technologies so that we must cooperate.

Ideally increasing intelligence and morality would cross-fertilize. As we became more intelligent, we would recognize the rationality of morality.1  We would see that the benefits of mutual cooperation outweigh the benefits of non-cooperation. (This was Hobbes insight, we all do best avoiding the state of nature.) As we became more moral, we would understand the need for greater intelligence to assure our flourishing and survival. We would accept that increased intelligence is indispensable to a good future. Eventually we would reach the higher states of being and consciousness so desired by transhumanists.

But then again we may destroy ourselves.

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1. Assuming morality is rational. If it isn’t we’d need another approach such as engineering people to be more sympathetic. Or we could conclude that morality is for suckers and try to kill, imprison, torture or enslave everyone else, like Hitler, Stalin, Tom Delay, Dick Cheney or similar psychopaths.

A Letter From A Former Student

The Letter

A former student of my nearly 30 year college teaching career found my blog and sent me email updating me about her life over the last fifteen years or so. In it she said:

I am so grateful that you and a small handful of other people I have encountered in my life had such an influence on me, in teaching me how to think for myself and how to not be a sheep, to not settle for accepting the world at face value, and the value in asking questions. I am sure you had a similar impact on other students … Thank you a million times over!

In addition I have another former student from years ago with whom I regularly correspond and  get together with when he comes to town. (There are very few like this; most of your students forget you.) I recently received a birthday from him which contained this excerpt: “You remain one of the greatest inspirations from an otherwise boring and uneventful college experience.”

Students & Teachers

l begin with a disclaimer. I am not publishing these so anyone thinks I was a great teacher. I’m sure for every nice letter one receives from a former student there is another student who longs to write its antithesis.  And as anyone who has ever read class evaluations of their teaching knows, the “this guy changed my life and should win the Nobel Peace Prize” evaluation is followed by one that says “this guy is the worst human being who ever lived.”

My graduate school department chair gave the best advice I ever heard about class evaluations. In a typical sample of about 30-40 he said, take the 2 best and the 2 worst, throw them out, and focus on the remainder. I think he was right. What I have found is that no matter what you do some students really like you and some really don’t. So it is the majority in the middle that provide the best feedback. Still the entire process of teaching evaluations done by students is suspect. Although I always did pretty well on them, I’ve often thought that they were bad for education, forcing instructors to grovel for student affection.

Why I Published The Excerpt

I think the excerpt from the letter above captures the essence of teaching and learning, especially its emphasis on thinking for oneself, asking questions, and not merely being a follower. Thinking is about wondering, questioning, fantasizing, and imagining, as another of my recent posts suggested.

But to be reminded by one of those nearly 10,000 students of your influence is strangely rewarding. That you made a bit of difference to someone’s  life makes your life seem, for a brief moment, meaningful. No it doesn’t mean that your life or cosmic life is fully meaningful, but it does bestow some temporary value upon one’s efforts.

And those brief, fleeting, ephemeral moments when you are reminded that everything you have done was not completely in vain is one of the best things life has to offer. Even when the reminder comes from strangers in the past.