Free Will, An Idea We Normally Do Not Question

Sapolsky.jpgThanks to WNYC, a radio station that has innovated the proliferation of the podcast with shows like Radiolab, for all that it brings to our attention on a regular basis. Seems strange to say it, but one reason we listen, related to the reasons why share on this platform and more broadly explaining (we think) why we do what we do: we choose to do all this because we care and our free will allows us the choice to do this rather than other things.

I cannot remember the last time I thought about free will, it is so obvious and taken for granted. So thanks also to WNYC for old school interviewers like Leonard Lopate, who also shine in the podcast ecosystem. His show is how I came to know of this new book, which led to my (surprised) thinking now about free will. Click the image above to go to the half-hour conversation. It motivated me to find out more. In addition to this 2009 TED Talk this brief interview in the newsfeed of his university is a compelling soundbite on a very  after listening to the broad-ranging topics of the WNYC conversation:

Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky ponders the best and worst of us, plus free will

With the publication of his latest book, Robert Sapolsky tackles the best and worst of human behavior and the nature of justice in the absence of free will. Continue reading

Communicating An Idea Clearly

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When I followed a link to a recording of his lecture, which happened after reading a review of his book, I could not yet have answered clearly as I can now an important question related to Yuval Noah Harari. Is it the core idea, or is it how he communicates that is more compelling? Yesterday I read this op-ed of his in the Guardian and it was as sticky for the last 24 hours as what I heard in that lecture in March, but perhaps not because of the idea.

I say this because the future he describes, in which artificial intelligence is pervasive and essential to the sense of value guiding our lives, is not one I am immediately attracted to, to put it mildly (I say this surrounded by a half million acres of very real forest and very real wildlife and a community of wonderfully real people with whom I enjoy hosting other wonderfully real visitors). And yet the argument he makes, and specifically the structure and description he uses for that argument, are compelling. And worth a few minutes of reading:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). Continue reading

Yuval Noah Harari Speaks His Mind; What A Mind It Is

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707.jpgWe linked recently to a review of this book, and that makes a compelling case. His publisher’s blurb says:

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, envisions a not-too-distant world in which we face a new set of challenges. Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? In Homo Deus, he examines our future with his trademark blend of science, history, philosophy and every discipline in between.

But if you have 90 minutes to let the author compel you through discussion, the intelligence squared recording below will not let you down

Get To Know Daniel Dennett’s Ideas, Take A Deep Breath Of Fresh Air

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Daniel Dennett’s naturalistic account of consciousness draws some people in and puts others off. “There ain’t no magic here,” he says. “Just stage magic.” PHOTOGRAPH BY IRINA ROZOVSKY FOR THE NEW YORKER

Joining colleagues for a conversation about how to make sense of the post-2016 world provided me strong motivation in recent weeks to return to philosophy, something I had not done since graduate school 2+ decades back. With all the hyperventilation, there is a clear need for calm reflection. I recently listened to this man on one of the best podcasts out there; and by virtue of his voice, his ideas, his science of the soul (thanks to Joshua Rothman and the New Yorker for illumination on this science), he offers the perfect antidote to the current crescendoing chaos:

Four billion years ago, Earth was a lifeless place. Nothing struggled, thought, or wanted. Slowly, that changed. Seawater leached chemicals from rocks; near thermal vents, those chemicals jostled and combined. Some hit upon the trick of making copies of themselves that, in turn, made more copies. The replicating chains were caught in oily bubbles, which protected them and made replication easier; eventually, they began to venture out into the open sea. A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. Life had begun. Continue reading

Evolution Of Responsibility

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Nathan Heller is one of the most consistently engaging, most compelling writers out there, and this new article is one more piece of evidence:

IF ANIMALS HAVE RIGHTS, SHOULD ROBOTS?

We can think of ourselves as an animal’s peer—or its protector. What will robots decide about us?

By

Harambe, a gorilla, was described as “smart,” “curious,” “courageous,” “magnificent.” But it wasn’t until last spring that Harambe became famous, too. On May 28th, a human boy, also curious and courageous, slipped through a fence at the Cincinnati Zoo and landed in the moat along the habitat that Harambe shared with two other gorillas. People at the fence above made whoops and cries and other noises of alarm. Harambe stood over the boy, as if to shield him from the hubbub, and then, grabbing one of his ankles, dragged him through the water like a doll across a playroom floor. For a moment, he took the child delicately by the waist and propped him on his legs, in a correct human stance. Then, as the whooping continued, he knocked the boy forward again, and dragged him halfway through the moat.

Harambe was a seventeen-year-old silverback, an animal of terrific strength. When zookeepers failed to lure him from the boy, a member of their Dangerous Animal Response Team shot the gorilla dead. The child was hospitalized briefly and released, declared to have no severe injuries. Continue reading

Can A University Course Change Your Life?

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It took graduate school for me to have a life-changing experience with a course. As a literature-focused liberal arts undergraduate I had an entire curriculum of life-forming courses, but not one course that stood out as life-changing. Ironically, the Philosophy of Science course I took in graduate school, the one that set me off in a new direction, was also the one that convinced me to reconsider my commitment to an academic life. And so, while I completed my Ph.D. in part thanks to that course, my life veered toward an applied, practical use of my dissertation, which I comment on from time to time in these pages.

The Atlantic has a story about a course that reminded me of the possibility, and the value, of a life-changing course, and this is worth a few minutes’ read in the interest of continuous learning:

…Puett’s course Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory has become the third most popular course at the university. The only classes with higher enrollment are Intro to Economics and Intro to Computer Science. The second time Puett offered it, in 2007, so many students crowded into the assigned room that they were sitting on the stairs and stage and spilling out into the hallway. Harvard moved the class to Sanders Theater, the biggest venue on campus.

Why are so many undergraduates spending a semester poring over abstruse Chinese philosophy by scholars who lived thousands of years ago? For one thing, the class fulfills one of Harvard’s more challenging core requirements, Ethical Reasoning. It’s clear, though, that students are also lured in by Puett’s bold promise: “This course will change your life.” Continue reading

Mother’s Day Redux: Bluebird and her Babies

Mother bluebird feeding babies on Mother’s Day

A little less than a month before mother’s day (May 10th), a pair of bluebirds made their nest in one of the bluebird houses in our backyard in Atlanta. I was away studying at the university at the time, but my parents described to me in phone conversations the process familiar to anyone who has seen birds build a nest in their yard: first the birds made tentative visits to the site, then they began to carry in straw, twigs, and grass, finally the mother Continue reading

What A Certain Change Of Scenery Can Do

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

The photo above will make sense below, I hope. Read on. Derek is with us in Kerala for one more week before he moves on to Australia. I am reflecting on his time here, while also currently in conversation with prospective interns for the second half of 2015. And I just received news of Michael, the poet prince of past interns, who is currently on a tug boat in the Atlantic ocean. His experience, since graduating from Amherst College the year after he interned with us, is not typical of anything other than that we have had a very interesting variety of interns who go on to do very diverse, interesting, meaningful things of their own choosing.

These reflections are mixing up with reflections on Ethiopia that I hope to make enough sense of to produce one relevant post, soon. The meaning of our Ethiopia expedition, I already know, will have something to do with the value of perspective, and change of scenery, and leapfrogged expectations.

The pitch for an internship with us is related to those same values and is straightforward, in one sense: practical work experience in sustainable hospitality, social enterprise, or some variation of the two. The trickier part of the pitch is being clear about the value of spark plugs blowing out in the middle of the night before you’ve reached the top of the mountain.  It is not possible to predict what a particular spark plug moment is going to be like in the future, or even that a particular person will be ready for it.

But it is possible to predict that most of us, most of the time, benefit from removing ourselves from our comfort zone. We may have just one zen moment, or a whole string of them, or none at all. And any of those may be just the right thing for us. It is making the decision to put one foot forward in a particular direction, and living with it for as long as it is useful for you, that seems to be the real source of valuable life experience.

So, the photo. It is not necessary to know who this philosopher was, or even that he was a philosopher. Just knowing what follows is enough to appreciate that sometimes a change of scenery is the best way to prepare yourself for the next big thing in your life:

…He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”) Continue reading

Classics On The Upswing

Seneca was venerated as a moral thinker; he was also one of Nero’s closest advisers. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH FROM AISA / EVERETT So

Seneca was venerated as a moral thinker; he was also one of Nero’s closest advisers. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH FROM AISA / EVERETT

This book review reminds us (for example where, in the middle of the review, the reviewer irresistibly, simply, says: “These days, Seneca is again on the upswing.”) of James, now firmly planted in the green fields of Harvard University taking his classics education to the ultimate level.

James, for his part, reminds us of our many reasons for paying attention to the classics, having little directly to do with the day to day activities of Raxa Collective except that the classics help us keep it all in perspective:

…If poets and philosophers dream of influencing those in power, Seneca was uniquely positioned to do so. He was a celebrated rhetorician, a satirist, the author of several books of natural history, and a playwright. He was also what today might be called an ethicist. Among his many works of moral philosophy are “De Ira” (“On Anger”), “De Providentia” (“On Providence”), and “De Brevitate Vitae” (“On the Shortness of Life”). Seneca had been Nero’s tutor since the younger man was twelve or thirteen, and he remained one of his closest advisers. Continue reading

Recycling as a Universal Construct

Although not technically an environmental manifesto, this superbly crafted short film ushers us into a 2-dimensional world built on the depth and power of atomic theory: recycling as a form of immortality.

Congratulations to the director and team for their selection at the Sundance Film Festival, among other achievements.

Click here to view the film via the newyorker website and here for the official featurette.

Bird Fun (…and Aristotle?) around Tacacorí

Papier-mâché penguins and other birds from the fourth grade class

In his recent post on our work at the local school in Tacacorí, Seth outlined our papier-mâché and painting ambitions with the third and fourth grades there. The second half of the week, Seth and I were split up because of the kids’ conflicting class schedules. I took fourth grade on the last few days, and he worked with third grade.

In his Poetics, Aristotle elaborates an aesthetic theory partly on the basis of μίμησις (mimēsis), or “imitation.” According to Aristotle, humans are “mimetic” beings, that is, disposed to imitate nature and other human beings. Art’s basis is precisely in Continue reading

The Hut of Romulus

Hut of Romulus (Post holes where arrow is pointing.)

Today, all that remains of the so-called “Hut of Romulus” are the holes you see in the picture above (the slight indentations on the platform where the arrow is pointing). When intact, Romulus’ humble wattle-and-daub dwelling, located in the southwest corner of the Palatine Hill in Rome, might have looked something like this. One might have expected that the passing of nearly three millennia would not have treated well the wood, straw, and twisted bark ties of the hut, but even in its own day the Hut was prone to accidental destruction. One particularly ignominious story has a crow dropping Continue reading

Hermes, Circa 1969

As one of the contributors referred to in this post, and as the one who took the photographs in that post, it occurred to me that I should comment further on the reference.  And in doing so, perhaps I could add to the small collection of personal statements that have been gathering on this site since mid-2011.  I am 100% sure I took the photograph above during that same visit to Greece in 2008.  As I snapped this photo my mother was at my side and we both remembered having stood in the same spot in 1969. Continue reading

A Few Etruscan Tombs

Polyphemus the Cyclops (Tomb of Orcus)

The Etruscans are, for all their great cultural influence on the Romans, a  poorly understood people. We know they once dominated northern Italy and much of its western coast and that they interacted extensively with not only the Romans but also many other native Italic tribes in the 1st milennium BC. Some of this contact is reflected linguistically: the modern English word “person,” deriving from Latin persona, entered the Latin language from Etruscan phersu Continue reading

Writing With A Sense Of Place

Jonathan Player for The New York Times. Dylan Thomas’s writing shed in Laugharne.

If writers should write, and they should, then where should they do it?  Perhaps a philosopher knows best (click the image above to read the full item):

…One does not have to be a Thoreau or a Rousseau for one of these modest spaces to supply what is needed to write. Identification with nature is not required (if indeed it were possible); a certain harmony with nature is already broken by putting pen to paper. Continue reading

Bonnet Macaques and Humanity

Anyone who has been to Thekkady is familiar with their extroverted nature. They screech and cackle, chase and fight each other in the most public spaces possible, and love to make themselves a nuisance. Bonnet Macaques are ubiquitous, quite probably because of how outgoing and shameless they are – and they seem to like their families big.

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From West to East: A Road Trip Journal (Part 3)

Taking a Quick Stop on the Pacific Coast Highway (Carl)

This is the third in a series of posts on a summer trip; see the second.

In Fort Bragg, the first thing we did was eat a substantial breakfast, since we had missed supper the night before. We ate at a curious Wizard of Oz themed restaurant called “Eggheads,” complete with a yellow-brick road (of linoleum tile) running through the center of the building. We asked the proprietor what had prompted the theme—had the young Judy Garland frequented the coastal town? Were the pots and pans castoffs of the Tin Man’s suit? As it turns out, the answer was rather more mundane: Eggheads’ bathroom is difficult to find. Those wanting to make the trip must go through the dining area and kitchen, exit into a lot behind the building, and hang a left around a corner before finding the small cottage hiding the commode nestled between a few sheds and next to some old gardening equipment. The circuitous route defeats expectations so soundly that, about thirty years ago, management decided to create a prominent trail for customers. When a dull saffron floor tile was chosen, the yellow brick road was born—and all of the many allusions to the Wizard of Oz which thereafter sprung up on the menu and storefront.

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Eye Heard You

Lately, I have been noticing how much I rely on and draw value from eye contact.  Maybe due to my weak hearing I tend to evaluate my conversations by observing others’ body language, specifically eye contact and supporting facial reactions.  I am surprised to find that I can accumulate a range of feelings simply from looking at these small features; I can be made to feel entirely stupid, worthless, and a time wasted, or I can feel encouraged, wise, and joyful to share my thoughts.  I guess this can support the old phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  The manner in which I maintain eye contact matters and can convey much more than the words I am speaking.  It makes me wonder how my message would be perceived if only my eyes were seen and my words were heard.

Before my mind over-evaluates this communication feature, I pause to promise myself to be mindful to the conversation my eyes and other facial features are having with someone instead of only that of my words.  I know according to Eleanor Roosevelt that I can only make someone feel inferior or poorly if he/she allows me that crude act.  However, I never want to put someone in a position to be made to feel negatively by my actions, both in words and other supporting communication.  So, in the words of John Sinclair, “The eyes of Texas are upon you,” and will, to the most often and to the best of their ability, be encouraging others to reach their great potential.

Being Full of It: A Meaningful Word

Since arriving in Kerala, I have been greeted many ways.  I have exchanged many smiles and hellos, and I have been veiled with jasmine garland and pressed with traditional dika.  However, the greeting I find most profound lies in a single word: Namaskaram.

Two people, worlds apart, meet with this word.  Each of their hands draws together in a prayerful pose in the nest of their individual chests.  With a bow of their heads, they utter, “Namaskaram.”  At first, it seemed like a simple interaction, yet when I asked the native people for the meaning, I learned that it has a much deeper connotation.

A signal of respect.  A promise of hospitality.  A notion of putting aside one’s ego.  All of these meanings are understood with Namaskaram.  I witness and experience them with nearly every interaction among the people here at Cardamom County, but the latter meaning, putting aside one’s ego, has struck a powerful chord in me. Continue reading

Connecting The Madeleines

The young man working his way through the kitchen brought to mind a young man of about the same age, three decades earlier. I had the good fortune, in my early adulthood, to work in a restaurant owned and operated by a man who is one of the great chefs of his generation.  I did not work in the kitchen, but in the dining room, from 1983-1985. It provided the most important education of my life, which is saying a lot because I eventually earned a Ph.D. and even that did not top the learning earned in Guy Savoy’s restaurant.

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