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Archive for the category “Philosophy”

The Relative Merits of Human Stupidity

The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote: “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

There is a philosophical debate started by the Utilitarian John Stuart Mill over whether ‘tis better to be a human dissatisfied or a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. The original argument regards how we can measure happiness, but I think it says something about intelligence as well. The human is more intelligent than the pig and Socrates is more intelligent than the fool. But how much does human intelligence really matter compared to other traits?

Biologically, humans developed specific types of intelligences in order to survive against predators on the savanna. These include increasingly complex communication that eventually developed into the only language ability in the animal kingdom; it also involves managing complex social interaction among groups of up to 100 or so individuals, a sort of cunning ability to manipulate objects to make tools (the root of “technology”), and a long-term memory that could instantly recall faces, paths, hundreds of plant and animal characteristics, and stories. These are still our most common varieties of intelligence, and probably not much more developed today than when they first appeared in our genetic ancestors a million years ago or so. There is even an argument that various “primitive” humans, neanderthals and the like, would have probably used, on average, more of their brains and more skills than the average modern Homo couch-potato.

You may have noticed that there are certain types of intelligence not on the above list. Higher-order thinking skills like critical thinking, abstract reasoning, long-term hypothetical planning, understanding philosophical issues, especially in the areas of ethics and politics. That is not to say that these things do not exist in humans–obviously they do–but that they evolved much later in our history and are not as important for our immediate survival. Basically, our technological and social intelligence is much stronger than our critical and abstract intelligence.

Two of the strongest instincts in humans are selfishness and tribalism. These help guarantee the survival of any given individual, and collectively ensure the safety and protection of one group against its enemies and rivals for limited natural resources (land, water, food). This has alway been true and is the main reason why humans became the dominant species. It also shows why there is always conflict between human individuals and societies, and probably always will be.

Tribalism is a strong primitive urge that takes many forms in our modern parlance: racism, nationalism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, and political partisanship. These features are usually collocated, and coalesce around a vague fear or hatred of “the other”. In the Roman and Byzantine empires, chariot racing was the most popular spectator sport, along with gladiatorial combat. It was also a way for the otherwise disenfranchised citizens to show some level of political partisanship. The Blues and the Greens were the most popular factions in Constantinople, which for centuries maintained a violent hatred of each other whose rivalry almost overthrew the empire at one point. Today in America most people strongly identify with one of two rival political factions, and maintain their support for their faction almost to the death, without thinking about actual policy or consequences. This conflict is in danger of overthrowing the American empire, and taking the world down with it.

It is clear that a majority of the human race relies more upon the primitive (earlier evolved) forms of intelligence than the more complex and more difficult ones. This is very understandable, since it is easier and more natural. In the end, it really is easier to be a pig or a fool. Instant gratification and laziness come more easily than nuance and hard choices. The burden of abstract intelligence is too much for all but a select few would-be Socrates’. With growing education and economic prosperity in our modern world, there are many more intellectuals–people, per Asimov, who use knowledge and complex intelligence at least as much as the basic survival instincts–than there have ever been. I count this as a great virtue of our age, since it should be clear to my readers that I come down firmly on the side of intellectualism, for its own sake and for the sake of our continued species-wide development and future survival. I consider myself a reasonably well-read, well-travelled, tolerant sort of person–a political “liberal” as these things are labelled today.

Like Montaigne, I find pleasure in knowledge, and like Orwell, find ignorance a danger to society. The fact is, as I readily admit, that people like me who trust facts, history, science, and objective knowledge over instinctual tribalism are still an absolute minority among humans. Many of the people on the opposite side of the equation have perfectly understandable reasons for being selfish and ignorant–it’s in our genes and it’s difficult to overcome such a strong primitive instinct. This majority, therefore, does not like being preached at by people like me who wield knowledge like a sword. They call us “elites” and blame all their problems either on us, or on people outside the tribe they identify with (which usually means people with different skin tones, accents, or religions). They also rail against things like “political correctness” in the public discourse, which they feel limits their ability to freely speak about their bigotry. I will abandon political correctness for the moment, and call these people what they are–stupid.

Human beings, as a whole, have always been too stupid to really survive indefinitely. Alien archaeologists one million years from now–the type often imagined by Asimov–might very well stumble upon evidence of an advanced civilization on Earth that killed itself off while at the height of its powers, along with most of the other life forms it shared the planet with. They will come up with various hypotheses for this, but they will lack the knowledge to ever really know what happened. We the living know what happened. We have access to knowledge about the series of minor people and events that played a role in bringing about the slow demise of our societies and ecosystems. These names and events will be washed away in polluted, acidic oceans, or frozen in nuclear winters, and be lost forever. We were too stupid to use the power we had amassed in our hands. Maybe things would have been different if the elephants, or dolphins, or pigs, had developed complex intelligence faster than the monkeys. Things may have been better, or possibly worse. We will never know, and now the time of the monkeys will gradually burn itself out.

Why Does the Universe Exist and Other Things We Cannot Know

Philosophy used to be the king of science. Hard to imagine now, but it’s true. Over the last few centuries, however, the divide between science and philosophy has grown larger and more irreconcilable, even while science overwhelmingly surpassed philosophy in importance. Philosophy has become a specialized field for unanswerable metaphysical and ethical questions, while science, the new king of human knowledge, searches for and finds answers. That is the conventional wisdom, anyway. Philosophy, more than a specific field of academia, is something more akin to a way of thinking, questioning the world, and exploring possibilities. In reality, all cutting edge scientific research depends on philosophy. Most theoretical scientists worth their microscopes would readily admit that posing questions, hypotheses, and thought experiments (otherwise known as philosophizing) are the foundation for conducting research. In philosophy, unlike in science or in daily life, questions are the answer, the journey, the raison d’être. As Will Durant wrote in The Story of Philosophy: “Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.”

Despite the opinions of some scientists, there are some questions that concern both philosophy and science, and there are certainly some questions that will likely never be solved even by futuristic science. These two issues are at the heart of two recent books I will review: Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story (2012) by Jim Holt, and What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge (2016) by Marcus du Sautoy. I strongly recommend both books for philosophically or scientifically inclined readers interested in life’s biggest questions and mysteries.

Why Does the World Exist?

A single question provides the impetus for the first book, whose title says it all: Why does the World Exist? Actually, the title does not say it all–the question should be framed: “why does the universe exist?” This is a question which most likely goes back to the dawn of mankind, to our most primitive myths and religions, and which certainly interested our earliest philosophers. As Holt goes on to show in great detail, it is also a question that has interested virtually every philosopher who ever lived (and not only philosophers but poets, preachers, politicians, and plumbers). There is something so basic, and fundamental, and unanswerable about the question, that anyone with a brain cannot help but give it some serious thought at some point in their life (and in many cases, over the course of their life). Holt points to the 17th century German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Liebniz as the first one to really formulate and attempt to answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Spoiler alert: Holt does not conclusively answer the title question, but by the end of the book this lacuna is almost beside the point. It remains an unanswered and (most likely) an unanswerable question. Holt nevertheless travels around universities and cafes in Europe and America to interview ten of the most brilliant minds across various fields that all have a stake in the question. Over half of Holt’s interlocutors are theoretical or cosmological physicists: Andrei Linde, David Deutsch, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg, Roger Penrose, and John Leslie; the remaining four are two philosophers, Adolph Grünbaum and Derek Parfit, the theologian Richard Swinburne, and the novelist John Updike. Each interview gives new insight from a completely different perspective and set of assumptions. Holt, a philosopher himself, finally does attempt to formulate his own theoretical flowchart that explains how the universe could have come to existence out of nothing. The result is somewhat technical, metaphysical, and probably not terribly convincing, as the author himself might admit, but still food for a good day’s thought.

Why Does the World Exist? is far from a dry recitation of theories and ideas, but rather a lively personal and even emotional journey which invites the reader to think for himself. We travel from place to place with the author, who writes in witty and readable prose. Along the way he fluently provides the commentary on the relevant existential views of virtual every major philosopher in the western tradition, along with abundant references to literature, art, and music. The book is so jam-packed with captivating information that I almost wanted to reread it immediately after finishing–the best praise I can give to a book, especially the philosophical non-fiction variety.

What We Cannot Know is another book which doubles as both a big-picture explanation of science and philosophy and a personal quest for the limits of human knowledge. Marcus du Sautoy is a mathematician whose title at Oxford University is Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, a chair he took over from Richard Dawkins. If du Sautoy’s goal is to help the public at large to begin to understand the arcane questions that underpin the latest scientific developments, his book is highly praiseworthy but not completely satisfying. In this book, he sets out the task of exploring the limits of human knowledge in seven specific areas he calls ‘Edges.’ He explains: “They represent the horizon beyond which we cannot see. My journey to the Edges of knowledge to articulate the known unknowns will pass through the known knowns that demonstrate how we have travelled beyond what we previously thought were the limits of knowledge.” Thus, he is interested not just in what we still do not know at the present, but what kinds of questions might be fundamentally unknowable to human science.

What We Cannot Know

The seven Edges of knowledge du Sautoy discusses are the following: Chaos Theory, the indivisibility of subatomic particles, quantum mechanics, the limits of the universe, the nature of time, black holes, and what came before the Big Bang, the problem of human consciousness, and the troubling mathematical paradoxes surrounding infinity. Typically du Sautoy devotes two chapters to each Edge, with one being a summary of the relevant scientific history leading up to the present, the the second being an exploration of the possibilities for expanding our current knowledge.

One on hand it’s hard to find fault with such an ambitious and erudite book that just about does everything it set out to do. If I have any qualms at all they are more than likely due to my own significant limitations rather than the author’s. I found it hard to keep track of exactly the main point of each chapter, each of the ‘edges’ that were being discussed at a time. Du Sautoy never gives a concise introduction or conclusion of each area that reinforces what the particular question under discussion was. Because of this, as well as the overly long technical sections, it was hard to maintain narrative focus. Added to the fact that I am much less capable of engaging in scientific and mathematical concepts than in history and philosophy, there were chapters which I found myself struggling to get through–say, the minute consistency of leptons, muons, and quarks and how they are measured. Obviously there were parts that I was more interested in than others, especially the more philosophical parts discussing the limits and origins of the universe (naturally, following Holt’s book), and the debate of human consciousness and free will. Du Sautoy presents a massive, almost overwhelming, amount of information, and looking back, I find that there are very few specific things I remember learning from the book, rather than several general viewpoints I absorbed. If I had the time and patience to reread it, I would doubtlessly glean more than the first reading.

For those who are analytical minded and interested in the cutting edge developments of science and math, What We Cannot Know is a great book to get you started or broaden your base of knowledge. For others who prefer a more speculative, and focused journey into the philosophical history of the investigation of existence, Why Does the World Exist? is probably the best overall summary you will find on the subject.

On Plato, Donald Trump, and the Ship of State

(Originally published at Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Plato’s most famous work and the foundational text of political philosophy is the Republic. Written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and other real-life Athenians, the book opens with a discussion about the nature of justice and then proceeds into Plato’s ideas about what an ideal state and its leader would look like. I will argue how these ideas are still relevant nowadays, especially regarding the disturbing state of American politics in which the American people are considering electing for the first time an openly authoritarian leader who is blatantly unqualified for the job.

Plato, an aristocrat, held a deep antipathy for democracy; he had lived through the defeat of Athens at the hand of Sparta as well as the condemnation of his mentor, Socrates. He blamed democracy for these twin catastrophes. His own ideal state would actually bear strong resemblance to Sparta–a totalitarian state in which a small elite trained for success in battle, the majority were disenfranchised slaves who did all the labor, and all cultural activities were forbidden. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy summarized Plato’s Republic as follows:

“When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.”

Russell goes on in his criticism, answering the question of how and why Plato could have achieved such greatness despite having, frankly, mostly terrible ideas:

“Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.”

Plato’s Non-Ideal Republic in Practice

Indeed, the millennia of admiration for Plato’s Republic came to a sudden end when Russell’s History and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies were published in the same year–1945. No coincidence that both were written during the Second World War at the height of the destruction wrought by demented dictators and dangerous ideas. Popper’s was perhaps the first, and still most important work, that separates Plato from the humanistic and democratic ideas of Socrates, and shows rather that Plato’s ideal state was a totalitarian one. The overriding theme of the book, which follows the thread of totalitarianism from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, is how all these philosophers relied on historicism, a false theory in which history unfolds according the universal laws, to enable dangerous ideas to follow. He accused all of these thinkers of being partially culpable in leading Europe towards the crisis of leadership and war contemporaneous with the book’s publishing. Popper argues instead for a strong defense of the open society, which protects liberal values and institutes reforms without violence. One relevant issue Popper also discusses is the Paradox of Intolerance, which says that for an Open Society to flourish, we must not be tolerant of intolerance (which include the type of hate speech, bigotry, and violent rhetoric that is becoming normalized in Donald Trump’s Republican Party).

The most famous parable from the Republic is that of The Cave, whose premise about Plato’s theory of ideas most undergraduates would be familiar. Much more useful, in my opinion, however, is the parable of the Ship of State. Imagine the state as a ship, whose captain is a skilled stargazing navigator. The citizens are sailors, who may have many various skills but are not qualified to pilot the ship, especially through rough weather. The sailors mock the captain and try to replace him, but ultimately he is the only one with the ability to lead them. In Plato’s view, the captain in a state should be a philosopher-king, wise and trained at birth for his position as total ruler. One sees that democracy and Plato do not mix well–for him, the people were a mob who could not rule themselves.

Let’s bring these analogies into present day America.

As far as I can tell, America is the longest running large democracy in history, though a number of smaller polities, such as Iceland or the old Iroquois Confederation, to name two, are certainly older. For a huge and diverse nation of over 300 million people that has the world’s largest economy and strongest military, the fact that it has survived 240 years and a bloody civil war without ever deviating from a democratic and peaceful transition of power is quite amazing. Unprecedented actually. It was taken for granted when the Founding Fathers drew up the Constitution that Athenian-style democracy could only ever end in manipulation of the mob, or demos, by a demagogue or tyrant. They drew up a system of checks and balances between branches of government in which no person could amass enough power to take over the government, and through which change would necessarily be slow and conservative. This has often frustrated the ability to pass needed reforms, but has also the greater benefit of preserving the system peacefully.

Past American Presidents

Never in American history, discounting the obvious case of the Civil War, has the original political system drawn up in the Constitution come under threat of being radically altered. Likewise, there has never been a single person in American history who has had the power, or even sought the power, to completely control government in anything even resembling a dictatorship. Out of all the 44 presidents (Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is counted twice), historians typically agree on Andrew Johnson as the worst. It was certainly Abraham Lincoln’s biggest mistake to name him his Vice President for short-sighted and unnecessary electoral reasons before his reelection, and Johnson’s horrible term had awful ramifications for the next century regarding the reconstruction of the South. Even so, it is hard to find any American president who was unqualified to hold the office, in the traditional sense of having the ability and experience to operate an executive organization with delegated tasks and many moving parts. This has nothing to do with ideology, or even effectiveness, but of basic qualifications for the job before taking office. Several highly successful generals had either mostly good, mixed, or awful administrations (Eisenhower, Jackson, and Grant, for example), but their qualifications were never questioned despite their success or lack thereof. Herbert Hoover is generally considered an awful president mostly due to the Great Depression beginning on his watch, but he was highly successful in his private career and as the head of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI and Secretary of Commerce under two presidents before being elected, and was thus very qualified. Even George W. Bush, whom historians will most likely rank closer to Andrew Johnson than Franklin Roosevelt, governed the second largest state before becoming president. Most presidents have been highly educated and experienced men (obviously all men to date) with military backgrounds and terms as senators, congressmen, or governors. Men who understood something about the world and also how government works at various levels. The most successful presidents have also had temperaments suited for the rigorous stressfulness of this unique position as well as the ability to listen to advisors and learn from mistakes. To have a combination of many of these rare skills is what is wanted in a president, as well as a certain degree of other abstract qualities like intellectual curiosity, integrity, and empathy.

The Ideal Leader in a Democracy

Basically, I would argue that we want the same thing today as Plato wanted, even if we have different ways of going about it. Even if they will not be philosopher-kings, our leaders should be the best among us, and chosen by an informed electorate. They should be highly skilled at steering the large and unwieldy ship of state even in the rough waters of domestic and international politics. Plato, a member of the hereditary aristocracy and an anti-democrat, thought that these leaders should be bred from birth for the role, with the rest of the people having no say in the matter. There is another meaning of aristocracy, which is merely “rule by the best”, not involving genetics or inheritance but pure merit through earned experience, training, and natural character, and selected for by the majority of citizens. In our democracy, even with the two major political parties nominating candidates for the office of president, there has long been a de facto sorting out of the best qualified candidates. Once again, this has nothing to do with ideology but of basic minimum ability to function in a very complex role. Despite differences in ideas by the parties and the electorate, there has always been a tacit understanding that the winner will uphold the duties of his office and continue to serve in the government for the people.

The Disqualification of Donald Trump

Thus, we have never before in American history been in the position we are currently in–namely, to have a major party candidate for president who is clearly and without any doubt unqualified and unsuited for the office that he seeks. The Republican Party, once a bastion of principled conservatism, respect for law, and personal responsibility, has become so radical and reactionary over the last three decades or so that it has nominated a person who would certainly be the most disastrous, irresponsible, and unqualified president in history, and the closest we have yet come to a dictator, however petty. Trump’s open disregard for the rule of law, free press, and clear lack of basic knowledge of the world and the government he would operate is a disqualification for president. His other temperamental flaws, his proudly open bigotry (the likes of which has not been seen in a major candidate since the days of legal slavery), his shocking, world historical level of narcissism and mendacity (unprecedented even for a politician), and other shallow but toxic policy ideas are almost beside the point–any one of these attributes should easily have disqualified Trump from coming anywhere near being a realistic candidate for president, but the ultimate fact that he has none of the necessary tools to meet the minimum standards for piloting the ship of state is the single most important fact. He is not trained or experienced in anything like running the executive branch of the richest and strongest military power on Earth. He has shown no ability to succeed in anything other than making his own name universally known, however he goes about that. He is not a stargazer who can pilot America through bad storms, nor is he someone who should have instant control over soldiers’ lives and nuclear weapons.

The Republican Party, for the first time in American history, has failed in the basic task of nominating a human who is at a basic level of qualification for the office of president. There is no need to get any more into the details of how and why this happened--this article gives a brief summary of how the Republican Party began moving rightward three decades ago and cynically cultivating deep distrust of government itself for its own electoral gain, and this is the result. The most important thing is that Trump be defeated at all costs, and that a strong warning is cried out that never again will We the American people tolerate such a denigration of our hallowed tradition for maintaining a functioning democracy, whatever differences of policy and ideology. I disagree with Plato’s sentiment that democracy is a bad thing. It is not a perfect system; it is merely less bad than every other possible system. Its strength, and also its only flaw, is that it ultimately depends on an electorate that votes in the best interests of the peaceful and prosperous survival of the state, and not on a single tyrant who manipulates the mob with promises to solve all problems on his own. Let’s hope that we can continue for at least another 240 years without such a threat and an affront to our great country.

Not Quite Ready to Die in the Anthropocene

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton: A Review

(originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian)

The recent Paris Climate Conference has been called the last best chance for the leaders of the world, nations and multinational corporations, to agree upon a framework that can somewhat mitigate and limit the compounding effects of climate change. Some have commented that a best-case scenario for such an agreement would still not prevent a future of unbearable heat and widespread famine, drought, war, and mass migrations; a total failure to reach a feasible agreement, like the previous iteration in Copenhagen in 2009, would mean much, much worse: no less than the end of human civilization as we know it and the extinction of huge numbers of plant and animal species, possibly including homo sapiens. Roy Scranton, in his new book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, cleaves to the latter option as the most likely scenario, and this slim volume is dense with big history, scientific nitty-gritty, and philosophical reflections.

Scranton opens the book by invoking his experience as a soldier in the Iraq War, driving and patrolling through Baghdad and pondering the collapse of a once-bustling ancient city into chaos and violence. Back home in the States and safe once again, he witnessed the similar breakdown of order and imposition of martial law in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Scranton connects these localized disaster zones of social breakdown with the future fate of the planet and the human race when climate change accelerates and worsens. He cites a litany of military planners, economists, and scientists to draw his indisputable and alarming conclusion: “Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation. It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it.” Sobering words.

Over the next four chapters, we are treated to a God’s eye view, in the style of Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis, of geological eras, the rise of homo sapiens, the evolution of energy and industry, the seemingly intractable conundrum of the greenhouse gas effect, the near impossibility of the nations and leaders of the world to come to a working solution that will fix things, and the universality of violence in our primate species. Scranton presents well-researched and argued points on an impressive range of topics with a concise and continually compelling sense of conviction.

The fifth and final chapter, entitled “A New Enlightenment”, is the most original, interesting, challenging, and vexing part of the book. Scranton opens with an epigram from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest pieces of literature on earth which was rediscovered by chance only 150 years ago. The epic tells of the adventures of the powerful king Gilgamesh and his wild companion, Enkidu, as they unite their opposing forces against the gods themselves, forcing the gods to strike down Enkidu. Gilgamesh becomes distraught over the death of his friend and wanders the earth seeking a way to conquer death. Frustrated in the end, Gilgamesh curses the futility of existence. His experience lives on, though, and offers, as Scranton says, “a lesson in the importance of sustaining and recuperating cultural heritage in the wake of climate change.” It also represents “not only the fragility of our deep cultural heritage, but its persistence.” For the author, the specter of climate change is such a monumental problem that we have no hope of solving it; rather, we should focus on maintaining and deepening our humanism and protecting our rich cultural legacy in order that we will both have a softer descent into the envisioned post-apocalyptic future, and that this rich heritage painstakingly accrued over millenia may be rediscovered one day by our survivors in order to rebuild a new civilization. Our study of philosophy, the ancient classics, and Shakespeare, as rewarding as it may be, creates something of a non sequitur when used as a transition to the idea that our unfortunate inheritors will be fighting for resources and survival in a post-apocalyptic world where life will revert to that pre-state existence invoked by Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is an far-reaching, erudite, and cultured book with a bleak view of humanity and its future. The author draws upon a wide variety of philosophical ideas to make his point, from Heraclitus (“Life, whether for a mosquito, a person, or a civilization, is a constant process of becoming…Life is a flow.”), to Hegel (“The human being is this Night, this empty nothingness which contains everything in its simplicity.”), to Heidegger (“We fall into the world caught between two necessities, compelled to live, born to die, and reconciling them has forever been one of our most challenging puzzles.”). More than any schools of thought, though, it seems like the author subscribes on some level to the Stoicism of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius when he says “Learning to die means learning to let go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, and stability. Learning to let go of salvation. Learning to let go of hope. Learning to let go of death.” This echoes once again the oft-repeated quote by Montaigne that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” In both the title of this book and the many references to “learning to die”, I think we could easily substitute the phrase “philosophizing” without losing any significance; for Scranton envisions a dying world in which we will all need to become philosophers if we are to hold onto our humanity.

Fear of death is universal among humans and many of the higher mammals. It likely spawned our myths as well as our art. It is only the philosophers who do not avoid it or fear it, but look it clearly in the face. This is true of Democritus, Socrates, Epicurus, the Zen Masters, the Bodhisattvas, Hume, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, and many others who have spent their lives contemplating death not as a morbid fascination but as a means to improving and perfecting their own lives. If it is difficult for most people to attain such peacefulness of mind even after a lifetime of meditation, it is even more unfathomable to find any comfort in the inconvenient truth that the Earth will be rendered uninhabitable in a few million years, and that the cold death of the universe will follow in its wake a few billion years later. The cycle of life and death does not occur on an individual level, or even that of an entire species; it includes planets, stars, and the universe itself. Numerous other books, films, and stories, including Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, discuss this tragic reality in one way or another; Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, Asimov’s “The Last Question”, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Lars Trier’s Melancholia, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, and the Samurai manual Hagakure, which Scranton read in Iraq as a way of dealing with the pervasive and daily dance of death.

Everything in the book springs from the idea that global warming is a problem too big for humans to deal with based on the total lack of realistic and practical alternatives we have to stop it. On this point, I fully understand the enormity of the problem, the almost complete lack of political and corporate will to change our entire world economic system and sacrifice short-term profit, and the bleakness of the future we therefore guarantee for ourselves; but I do not, and cannot, fully endorse the complete resignation of the search and struggle for solutions that the author advocates. On the merits, I have no issue with any of his conclusions except for his certainty of failure in the face of global warming. I am by no means hopeful about the state of the climate and its geopolitical effects that my children will witness, but rather I think that is exactly why pervading pessimism must give way to de rigueur active optimism for the sake of our survival. The current Paris Climate Conference will be not the last best chance, but the first great step to further increase momentum towards a global solution to the extremely daunting but not impossible crisis we face. If that means a change away from neoliberal capitalism towards a more sustainable future, as Scranton alludes to, so be it.

Overall, the book is exceedingly ambitious and almost too wide-ranging for its own good, and it feels like the solution offered by the author in the face of a crisis he goes to great lengths to explain renders the conclusion relatively feeble and unconvincing. It is not really a work of philosophy as much as a cri de coeur over the indispensability of philosophy and the humanities as a way of securing “the fate of humanity itself.” I do believe, along with the author, that a deep sense of compassion and humanism are necessary to continued civilization, but so are collective action. My grasp of philosophy helps me cope with the thought of my and the world’s eventual annihilation, but my appreciation of human craft, art, technology, and collective potential to solve problems tells me that we will not go gently into that good night, but will rage against the dying of the light.

The Connection Between Walking and Thinking

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

A difficult decision on Day 19 of the Camino de Santiago

I haven’t always been a walker. Where I grew up in America, in a small town in South Carolina, walking was not a normal activity. A town of 30,000 people that was so spread out that there were no schools or stores within walking distance. While at university in the state capital, walking became more common to get around the large campus, but it remained purely a functional rather than pleasurable activity. In the army, I spent a lot of time doing a certain kind of walking–marching at a vigorous pace with a heavy uncomfortable rucksack in too hot, too cold, or too rainy conditions. This, too, did little to foster the love of walking in me. Only after finishing my time in the army did I have the time to cultivate other more relaxing hobbies such as walking for fun.

My first real experience of this new world was the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage path from France across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, ostensibly the site of the remains of the apostle James. This trip was one of the best and most valuable experiences of my life, and a personal symbol of my starting a new life after unfocused and unhappy years in the army. On the Camino, the only goal everyday is just to walk as far as you want at a pace you want until you decide to stop for the day, which is repeated day after day during the slow progress across Spain. I did the walk alone, though it is so full of interesting fellow travelers that you are never really alone except when you want to be. Every night was a social event at the various pilgrim hostels along the way. There is much to see in the countryside, the changing landscapes, from mountains to high plains to wet forests, and yellow arrows point the way at every crossroads of the 800-kilometer trek. The absence of any other duties or responsibilities means that you have time to let your mind wander freely and really think about whatever you want. You become mentally stronger as you walk, not only because walking is a healthy activity that increases blood flow to the brain, but because you find new challenges for yourself along the way. Some days I pushed myself to see how far I could go in a day (my record was 58 kilometers); some days you just found a quiet place in a wood near a stream to take a break, perhaps a nap, before continuing on to the next village.

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

The End of the Camino de Santiago at the Atlantic Ocean

Walking puts our human capabilities into perspective. For example, walking was the primary (or only) means of human transportation for a huge majority of humankind for a huge majority of our existence. The distance you can walk in a day has not changed since humans migrated from Africa to Asia and down to South America. The days I spent walking 30, 40, or 50 or more kilometers were exactly the same, quantitatively if not qualitatively, as those spent by countless ancestors searching for new hunting grounds, living space, or fleeing stronger tribes. You feel more connection to the land as you slowly explore it step by step, and a closer connection with other people. Hospitality becomes important when you have nothing but what you can carry on your back and no means of travel except your own feet. Indeed, in the days before its worldwide popularity and commercialization, the Camino was still supported almost exclusively by the hospitality of local people.

In the six years since I completed the Camino de Santiago, I have only increased my walking ability and appreciation. Almost all of my food shopping has been done on foot carrying only what fits in my backpack. I have been able to commute on foot to all the jobs I have had. When I spent a year in Wales doing a graduate degree, I joined the university hiking club and went on a long walk every weekend in the green hills or lovely coast of that wild country. In Italy, my home for the last four years, I have explored as much as possible the nearby mountains of the Dolomites, and started rock climbing again as well.

I wanted to write about this topic because I have recently moved from the city center of a large industrial area to a small rural town on a hillside surrounded by mountains with a panoramic view of the western edge of the Venetian plain. While I have to drive to work and shops for the first time in years, there are also miles of quiet and wooded paths just outside my door that go higher and higher up the hill into the clouds. I was thinking about the countless hours I have spent walking in the last six years, either in conversation with friends or occasionally listening to an MP3 player, but mostly in quiet meditation and contemplation of the ground below my feet, the trees and landscapes around me, and the myriad thoughts that come and go in the mind when unshackled to a specific task at hand. Even if it is not immediately or obviously clear, the time I spend walking is not only good for its physical and psychological aspects, but has also helped me find the inspiration and motivation to develop my intellectual and literary pursuits.

Writers and philosophers have long known and appreciated the benefits of walking. As described by his pupil Plato, Socrates is often seen walking the six miles or so to the Piraeus harbor while interrogating his companions. Plato’s pupil Aristotle famously did most of his discussion while walking around Athens, which is why his followers were called the Peripatetics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the central figures of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, wrote one of his last autobiographical works called Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in which he expounded on his thoughts on natural science, political philosophy, and other subjects that were inspired during long walks around Paris. He went so far as to claim that he could not work or even think when not walking. Immanuel Kant followed the same daily schedule every day of his adult life, including the same walk at the same hour rain or shine. It was only delayed one time when he was unable to put down David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, which Kant famously claimed had awoken him from his dogmatic slumber. Incidentally, Kant also believed it was healthier to always breathe through the nose while walking. Arthur Schopenhauer followed a similar identical daily routine for the last 27 years of his life, which included a two-hour walk no matter the weather. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, who interrupted his furious work pace for a two-hour walk in the late morning, and an even longer walk before dinner. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the last three men were lifelong bachelors. In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell mentions that from his university days he would walk at least 20 miles every Sunday, and recounts how some of his peers at Cambridge walked much more.

0092Probably the most famous literary walker was Henry David Thoreau, who wrote a long essay entitled “Walking”. It is filled with many examples and musings on the importance of walking, and is also one of the early inspirations for the environmental movement. Thoreau opens by giving his reason for writing as the following: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” The text contains many learned digressions on philosophy, literature, politics, and local culture, among other things. He says at one point, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

The connection between walking and thinking is strong. If the most obvious examples I have given are all philosophers and writers, it is because their intellectual currency and production–words and ideas–are most easily wrought while the body and mind are otherwise free to walk at leisure through nature. I would recommend that you make a habit of walking more frequently and, in addition to added health benefits and lower stress, perhaps you will find inspiration for your own project striking when you least expect it.

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