Category Archives: Personal – Academic

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Preface

When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, now rather than then.
~ Blaise Pascal

(Note – Over the next few weeks I’ll summarize my lifelong reflections on life and meaning.)

Preface

Wandering around my backyard when I was about 7 years old I climbed a small mound behind our garage when suddenly it hit me: “Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” That is the first philosophical question I ever remember asking—and what a big question it is. I remained inquisitive throughout childhood, especially about religion and politics, constantly badgering my father for answers to my questions. He replied as best he could but eventually I outgrew most of his answers.

In my early teens, I fell briefly under the spell of the New England transcendentalists, the first intellectuals I had ever encountered. Thoreau taught me the value of non-conformity and of hearing “a different drummer,” while Whitman told me to travel my own road in search of truth. His words still resonate within me,

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from
the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

But what principles should guide my search for truth and meaning? Here Emerson showed me the way with an insight that has informed my journey for more than fifty years,

[Life] offers every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

I now felt that an intellectual voyage lay ahead and that I might never anchor. Then, as I was about to enter college, philosophical discussions with a friend further awoken me, as Kant said of encountering Hume, from my dogmatic slumber. It was as if a dam had broken within me, forcing me to see the parochialism of my childhood indoctrination. I now wanted to live and die with as large a mind as possible and I found an irresistible desire to explore the mindscape. In other words, I had fallen in love with philosophy becoming, in Dostoyevsky’s words, “one of those who don’t want millions but an answer to their questions.”

Next, as a college freshman, I eagerly enrolled in “Major Questions in Philosophy,” taught by a newly minted Ph.D. from Harvard, Paul Gomberg. He introduced me to Descartes’ epistemological skepticism, Hume’s demolition of the design argument, and Lenin’s critique of the state. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in sixteen weeks. Subsequently, I took the maximum number of philosophy courses allowable in pursuit of my B.A. including: existentialism and phenomenology, Ancient, Medieval, Modern, American, and Asian philosophy, as well as philosophy of religion, science, mind, and law. Holding all these strains of study together was a deep and passionate concern about life’s meaning.

As a graduate student, I focused mostly on the history of western philosophy, theoretical ethics, game theory, and evolutionary philosophy, while teaching my own classes in ethics, Greek philosophy, and the philosophy of human nature. But it was in a series of seminars with Richard Blackwell that my thoughts began to coalesce. In “Concepts of Time,” I learned to think deeply about the mystery of time and began to see change as a fundamental aspect of reality. In “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Epistemology,” I came to understand that knowledge and morality evolve, and in “The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution,” I encountered a dramatic example of intellectual evolution.

Then a careful reading of “Aristotle’s Metaphysics” led me to wonder if Aristotle’s view of teleology—that reality strives unconsciously toward ends—could be reconciled with modern evolutionary theory which is decidedly non-teleological. This led to my discovery of Piaget’s conception of evolution where I found the concept of equilibrium, the biological and epistemological analog of the quasi-teleological approach I had been seeking. I now saw how evolution could be characterized as a non-deterministic orthogenesis. Perhaps evolution and progress could be reconciled after all.

So, as a result of six years of graduate study, I had come to believe that evolution was the key to understanding everything from the cell to the cosmos, that the minds and behaviors of human beings are largely explained by biology, that there was some evidence that reality unfolds in a progressive direction, and that the meaning of human life must be found, if it was to be found at all, in cosmic evolution. Naturally, this led me to wonder if the cosmos become increasingly meaningful as it evolves or whether there really is any direction to cosmic evolution.

It was also as a graduate student that I first thought about teaching a meaning of life course so as to better ascertain if there was a deep connection between evolutionary philosophy and my existential concerns. Then, shortly after receiving my Ph.D., I got a chance to teach that class, resulting in my becoming conversant in the contemporary philosophical literature surrounding the issue of life’s meaning. However, to my dismay,  none of the philosophers I studied were much interested in evolution.

At about the same time I was regularly teaching a class in bioethics. What I found especially interesting there was the potential of genetic engineering to transform human beings infinitely faster than biological evolution could. If technological evolution can transform humanity, I thought, surely that was relevant to questions about meaning in and of human life. So the question of the meaning of life had to be connected with both past and future evolution, especially cultural and technological evolution.

Subsequently, I began teaching a course on the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence and robotics. There I learned to think about the future and human transformation in a new light. We could go well beyond manipulating our genome—changing our wetware if you will—we could potentially become cyborgs, robots, use neural implants, or upload our consciousness into a computer—we could change the hardware on which our consciousness ran. Perhaps we could even be as gods. Now the question of the meaning of life appeared again in a new light. Is meaning of life to become posthuman or even godlike?  

All these strands of thought came together in my 2012 book: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. That book mostly summarized the hundreds of books and articles I had read on the subject and was meant to serve as the prerequisite research for having a more informed view on the subject. I wanted to approach the topic of meaning only after having conducted an even more thorough research of the literature.

Now, six years later, with more books read and essays written, and with multiple grandchildren and advancing age, I think it’s time to distill the essence of my own views. (However, I won’t provide their supporting arguments, as those can be found elsewhere in my writings.) Of course, I can never read, write and think enough, as I don’t have unlimited time. But if I don’t do this now I probably never will.

So here I offer my insights and answers on questions of meaning with the following caveats. My thinking is slow, my brain small, my experiences limited, and my life short. At the same time, the universe moves incredibly fast, is inconceivably large, unimaginably mysterious, and incredibly old. We are modified monkeys living on a planet that spins at 1600 km an hour on its axis, hurls around the sun at more than 100,000 km an hour, as part of a solar system that orbits the center of its Milky Way galaxy at about 800,000 kilometers an hour. The Milky Way itself moves through space at more than 2,000,000 km an hour and the galaxies move away from each other faster than the speed of light! (Yes, although nothing can move through space faster than light speed the space between galaxies expands faster than light speed. Hence the reason that eventually we won’t see any other galaxies from earth.)

And there’s more. Our galaxy contains more than 100 billion stars and there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe. All this in a universe that is almost 100 billion light year across and almost 14 billion years old. And there may be an infinite number of universes or the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics may be true or we may be living in a computer simulation. Such notions are largely incomprehensible.

Against this immense backdrop of speed, space, time and mystery shouldn’t we be humbled by our limitations and apparent insignificance? Who, other than the ignorant or delusional, would claim to know much of ultimate truth? I make no such claim; no one should. Like all others I am fallible, and my answers are, at best, applicable only to a certain time, place, perspective, and person. Ultimately they are mine alone.

Still, as a species, we are less ignorant than we once were and we share an evolutionary history and a human genome—we are similar as well as different. Perhaps then my conclusions aren’t worthless and may be relevant to others. In this spirit, I offer the following words hoping they provide comfort in what is, at times, a mercilessly cruel world. I also hope there’s some truth in them.

Part 1 – Life and Meaning

Academic Geneology

 My Academic Geneology

I received my Ph.D. in philosophy in 1992, completing my dissertation under the direction of Richard J. Blackwell, who at the time held the Danforth Chair in Humanities at Saint Louis University. He is currently Professor Emeritus.

Professor Blackwell (1929 -) was educated at MIT, (where he studied history and physics) and St. Louis University, where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1954. Later he did graduate work in physics. After a stint in the philosophy department at John Carroll University in Cleveland, he came back to St. Louis University in 1961. He is an authority in the history of philosophy, the history and philosophy of science, and is probably the world’s foremost living expert on the Galileo affair about which he written four books:

1) Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible
2)<img style=”border: none !important; margin: 0px !important;” src=”//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=themeanofli02-20&l=am2&o=1&a=B01LXF53YO” alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ /> Science, Religion and Authority: Lessons from the Galileo Affair
3) Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial
4) A Defense of Galileo, the Mathematician from Florence

He was the 2001 recipient of the Aquinas Medal for: “Outstanding teaching; personal publications of permanent and scholarly value; [and] influence upon American philosophical thought without reference to membership in the American Catholic Philosophical Association.” Past recipients include some of the most illustrious names in 20th-century philosophy: Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Frederick Copleston, Yves Simon, Vernon J. Bourke, James Collins, and Ernan McMullin.

In addition to his outstanding record of scholarly achievement, Professor Blackwell directed more than 30 dissertations during his tenure at St. Louis. His Ph.D. students include Gary Gutting (Notre Dame) Robert J. Richards (Chicago) and Dominic Balestra (Fordham, 1947 – 2016), among others. He was especially proud to be a direct descendant of Elizabeth Blackwell,  the first female physician in the United States.

Professor Blackwell’s dissertation, Aristotle’s Theory of Predication, was completed under the direction of Leonard J. Eslick. Professor Eslick, who died in 1991, received his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in the early 1930s. I met him once at a Christmas party where he told me that Professor Blackwell was the best student he ever had.

I was especially influenced by Professor Blackwell’s belief that philosophical thinking not informed by modern science—particularly physics and evolutionary theory—was superfluous. Through a series of his seminars, I came to realize that physical, mental, social, biological and cosmic life all evolve. This led me to conclude that through the process of development lies the only viable hope for humankind and their post-human descendants. Moreover, Professor Blackwell was one of the most humble, kind, and generous men I’ve ever known. I will forever be indebted to him for his contribution to my education.

I was also influenced by Professor William C. Charron. He is an authority on game theory, modern philosophy, social and political philosophy, and the literature and philosophy of T.S. Eliot. His clarity of mind and love of the craft of writing still influence me today.

JGM

Intellectual Heroes

The Thinker – Rodin

It is forty-five years since my higher education began, and in that time there have been hundreds of thinkers who have influenced me—most notably Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Hobbes, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Kazantzakis, Orwell, and Piaget. But a few have had a special impact on my thought, and for them, I feel the greatest affinity. All are from the Western philosophical or scientific tradition, the only tradition about which I’m qualified to make good judgments. I list them in the order I encountered their thought.

Bertrand Russell’Why I am Not A Christian awoken me from my dogmatic slumber when I was still a teenager. I think Russell was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and— measured by his significant contributions to logic, mathematics, politics, ethics, and popular philosophy—this Nobel Laureate may have been the greatest philosopher in the history of Western tradition. He had the most impressive mind I’ve ever encountered.

Will Durant – I always love reading this wonderful prose stylist; you sense his presence on every page he writes. What shines forth is his intellect, integrity, and decency. I wish I could have known him, and if I had one biography to write it would be of Will and his beloved wife Ariel. I grow nostalgic thinking of those stacks of books in my undergraduate library where I found him so long ago. I’m glad he was there.

David Hume – I would love to have been with Hume and Franklin in the salons of Paris, sipping brandy, gossiping, and flirting with the ladies! I admire the honest skepticism of this fearless intellect. He was a good and courageous man, who faced death bravely, and he was nobler than most of his detractors, past or present. “Be a philosopher but be still a man,” he advised, and then lived up to his credo.

Carl Sagan instilled in me a love of science and clear thinking—the only means that we have to tease truth from reality. He knew that disregarding reason and evidence invites superstition, folly, and atrocities as well. His moral concerns were for his fellow human beings, as well as for the planet and cosmos from which we all sprang. How I miss his articulate, humane and virtuous voice in our selfish, reckless and irrational times.

E. O. Wilson taught me many lessons—that human behavior has biological roots; that nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution; that the biosphere is our only home; that most people would rather believe than know; that the evolutionary epic is the grandest narrative that we will ever have;  and that we must direct the course of our future evolution. He is a great scientist who is filled with childlike wonder for the natural world.

Charles Darwin – Darwin may have been the most influential person in human history. Today multiple sciences converge on his basic insight—which is true beyond any reasonable doubt. He gave us the greatest idea we have, and perhaps will ever have, an idea applicable to everything from the cell to the cosmos. Without a basic understanding of evolution, one lives in intellectual darkness. Before encountering Darwin that’s where I lived, and I thank him for showing me the light.

________________________________________________________________________

(I’m sorry there aren’t any women or people of color here. I consider the fact that I wasn’t exposed to more of them a lacuna in my education.)

Evolution and Philosophy: Things I Learned From Richard J. Blackwell

Richard J. Blackwell directed my doctoral dissertation at St. Louis University and later wrote the Foreword, “Piaget as a Philosopher,” for my book, “Piaget’s Conception of Evolution.” I was a student in a number of his graduate seminars in the 1980s, all of which had a profound influence on my thinking. Here is a brief recap of those seminars.

Graduate Seminars With Richard J. Blackwell 

In his course, “Concepts of Time,” I first pondered that enigmatic continuum which we all experience but cannot define. I particularly remember my fascination with J. M. E. McTaggert’s famous article, “The Unreality of Time,” and I left the class realizing that time, like so many things, is mysterious.

In his subsequent seminars on “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Epistemology,” I came to understand that knowledge and morality evolve, and in “The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution,” I encountered a dramatic historical example of intellectual evolution. Putting this all together, I now knew that evolution was the key to understanding the minds and behaviors of human beings.

A synthesis of some of these ideas occurred when I took an independent seminar with Professor Blackwell on “Aristotle’s Metaphysics.” Like Avicenna, who reportedly read the work 40 times without understanding it, I too was baffled by Aristotle’s book. And I wondered if Aristotle’s view of teleology—that reality strives unconsciously toward certain ends—could be reconciled with modern evolutionary theory, which is decidedly non-teleological.

In response to my queries, Professor Blackwell introduced me to the thought of Jean Piaget. [For more see my book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution, or my summary of Piaget’s biological theorizing in Chapter 4 of The Cambridge Companion to Piaget.] What I found in Piaget’s thought was the concept of equilibrium, which was the biological analog of the quasi-teleological approach that I had been seeking. As a result, I saw how evolution could be characterized as a free, non-deterministic orthogenesis without resorting to Aristotle’s idea of final causation.

Furthermore, the evidence for orthogenesis was derived from an a posteriori analysis of cosmic evolution—order has emerged from chaos. An example of orthogenesis can be found by observing how the potential for language and thought are actualized in the maturing child. Teleology/equilibrium is strong enough to steer the development of the child’s language and cognitive faculties, but weak enough to allow for creative freedom.

In essence, what I came to believe as a result of my work with Professor Blackwell was that reality is unfolding in a progressive direction and that human life has meaning amidst this process of change.

My Further Development 

Since that time I have hedged my bets—perhaps life’s traumas have dampened my youthful optimism. In “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life,” I conclude that the best we can do is to hope that life if meaningful, inasmuch as evidence that life is meaningful is mixed. I think this is an honest response to the conflicting messages we get from reality. However, I am currently reassessing that conclusion as well, as I fear that hope too must be abandoned by the intellectually and morally virtuous.

Finally, let me say that the only way to ensure a meaningful reality is through human enhancement—-the basic project of transhumanism. Only when we augment ourselves will we be able to improve reality. Whether this will happen is an open question. And while I doubt that Professor Blackwell would agree with the above, he would definitely commend the continual search for better ideas.

Professor Blackwell As A Philosopher 

The January 1999 edition of the peer-reviewed philosophical journal, The Modern Schoolman, was titled: “Philosophy and Modern Science: Papers Presented in Honor of Richard J. Blackwell.” (Having an entire scholarly journal dedicated to your life and thought is one of the highest achievable academic honors.) The introduction of that work was penned by Professor Richard Dees, now of the University of Rochester. Dees begins:

The articles gathered here honor the legacy of Richard J. Blackwell, a dedicated scholar, a consummate colleague, and above all, a much-loved and much-revered teacher … During his tenure, he has directed a program in the history and philosophy of science, written five books on topics ranging from the logic of discovery to his now-famous work on Galileo, translated four other books of historical significance, held the Danforth Chair in Humanities, won the Nancy McNair Ring Outstanding Teacher Award, directed over 30 dissertations, and guided literally hundreds of students.

After describing Blackwell’s many philosophical projects, and introducing the articles written in his honor by distinguished scholars, Dees summarizes Blackwell’s conclusions about the Galileo affair—the work for which he is most well-known. In the concluding paragraph, I found this pearl of wisdom. Dees writes:

The … question is whether the Catholic Church—or any organized religion—can open up its inquiries into the nature of reality in the same way that science has. Blackwell thinks that such a change is possible, but not without reconceptualizing the very structure of traditional Christian thought. As long as faith is considered the key virtue, any religion can fall too easily into dogmatism. Instead, he suggests, hope should be the center of our thought, for in hope lies all possibilities. (emphasis mine)

While I don’t share Professor Blackwell’s interest in Christian thought, I think that Professor Dees captures Blackwell’s overall philosophical attitude which is exceedingly positive and optimistic. And, since I still correspond with him, I know that he has maintained that attitude despite age and infirmity.

Professor Blackwell As A Man

As for Professor Blackwell himself, I can only restate the dedication of my book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution:

To Richard J. Blackwell
an exemplar of moral and intellectual virtue

Finally, in a hand-written letter (remember those?) I received from him in the mid-1990s, Blackwell replied to my queries about the meaning of life like this:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

This is still some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

I thank Professor Blackwell for his immense contribution to my education. I am lucky to have been his student.

David Hume (1711 – 1776): How To Be A Philosopher

David Hume is one of my intellectual heroes. I first encountered him in the fall of 1973 in Lucas Hall on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The campus was familiar, right up the street from my house, but the ideas I encountered there were from a different world. Anxious to expand my small intellectual world, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.”

Professor Paul Gomberg, at that time a newly minted Harvard PhD, taught the class with intelligence and enthusiasm. We read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Lenin’s The State and Revolution, and Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in sixteen weeks. But it was Hume who made the greatest impression, demolishing the design argument for god’s existence and, more importantly, opening my mind.

It was not only Hume’s philosophy, but his character that I came to respect. He was not only a fearless intellectual, but he enjoyed life too. (I wish that I could have been with Hume and Franklin in the salons of Paris, sipping brandy and flirting with the ladies.) He was a good man who faced death bravely; he was more noble than most of his detractors, past or present. (I encourage anyone interested to read The Life of David Hume, the great biography written by Ernest Campbell Mossner.)

Here is Hume on how to be a good philosopher. It is from the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Tomorrow’s post will talk about how the atheist Hume faced death bravely.