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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

17 MARCH, 2014

George Lucas on the Meaning of Life

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“There is no why. We are. Life is beyond reason.”

When a frustrated young woman asked the most brilliant man in the world why we’re alive, Einstein responded in five poignant lines. This question — at the heart of which is a concern with the meaning of life — has since been answered by many other great minds: For David Foster Wallace, it was about going through life fully conscious; for Carl Sagan, about our significant insignificance in the cosmos; for Annie Dillard, about learning to live with impermanence; for Richard Feynman, about finding the open channel; for Anaïs Nin, about living and relating to others “as if they might not be there tomorrow”; for Henry Miller, about the mesmerism of the unknown; and for Leo Tolstoy, about finding knowledge to guide our lives.

But one of the most profound answers comes from legendary Star Wars director George Lucas. In The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — that remarkable 1991 anthology that gave us timeless meditations on existence from a number of luminaries — Lucas uses an autobiographical anecdote as the springboard for a larger meditation on the meaning of life and our best chance for reaching its fullest potential:

When I was eighteen I was in an automobile accident and went through a near-death experience. I was actually taken away from the scene, presumed dead, and it wasn’t until I reached the hospital that the doctors revived my heartbeat and brought me back to life. This is the kind of experience that molds people’s beliefs. But I have found that most of my conclusions have evolved from observing life since that time. If I’ve come to know anything, it’s that these questions are as unknowable for us as they would be for a tree or for an ant.

Like John Updike, who argued that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery”, and like John Cage, who believed that “the world, the real is not an object [but] a process,” Lucas considers the just-is nature of life:

Scholars who have studied myth and religion for many years and have connected all of the theories spawned over the ages about life and consciousness and who have taken away the superficial trappings, have come up with the same sensibility. They call it different things. They try to personify it and deal with it in different ways. But everybody seems to dress down the fact that life cannot be explained. The only reason for life is life. There is no why. We are. Life is beyond reason. One might think of life as a large organism, and we are but a small symbiotic part of it.

Lucas arrives at a conclusion rather similar to Alan Watts’s ideas about the interconnectedness of all life and writes:

It is possible that on a spiritual level we are all connected in a way that continues beyond the comings and goings of various life forms. My best guess is that we share a collective spirit or life force or consciousness that encompasses and goes beyond individual life forms. There’s a part of us that connects to other humans, connects to other animals, connects to plants, connects to the planet, connects to the universe. I don’t think we can understand it through any kind of verbal, written or intellectual means. But I do believe that we all know this, even if it is on a level beyond our normal conscious thoughts.

If we have a meaningful place in this process, it is to try to fit into a healthy, symbiotic relationship with other life force. Everybody, ultimately, is trying to reach a harmony with the other parts of the life force. And in trying to figure out what life is all about, we ultimately come down to expressions of compassion and love, helping the rest of the life force, caring about others without any conditions or expectations, without expecting to get anything in return. This is expressed in every religion, by every prophet.

The Meaning of Life is superb in its entirety. Sample it further with answers from Carl Sagan, John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski.

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14 MARCH, 2014

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Live with Our Human Fragility

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“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”

In 1988, Bill Moyers produced a series of intelligent, inspiring, provocative conversations with a diverse set of cultural icons, ranging from Isaac Asimov to Noam Chomsky to Chinua Achebe. It was unlike any public discourse to have ever graced the national television airwaves before. The following year, the interviews were transcribed and collected in the magnificent tome Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library). But for all its evenness of brilliance, one conversation in the series stands out for its depth, dimension, intensity, and timelessness — that with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, one of the most remarkable and luminous minds of our time, who sat down to talk with Moyers shortly after the publication of enormously stimulating book The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.

Martha Nussbaum

Moyers begins by framing Nussbaum’s singular approach to philosophy and, by extension, to the art of living:

MOYERS: The common perception of a philosopher is of a thinker of abstract thoughts. But stories and myths seem to be important to you as a philosopher.

NUSSBAUM: Very important, because I think that the language of philosophy has to come back from the abstract heights on which it so often lives to the richness of everyday discourse and humanity. It has to listen to the ways that people talk about themselves and what matters to them. One very good way to do this is to listen to stories.

Reflecting on the timeless wisdom of the Greek myths and tragedies, particularly Euripides’s Hecuba, Nussbaum considers the essence of good personhood, which necessitates accepting the basic insecurity of existence and embracing uncertainty. She tells Moyers:

To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

The paradox of the human condition, Nussbaum reminds us, is that while our capacity for vulnerability — and, by extension, our ability to trust others — may be what allows for tragedy to befall us, the greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity:

Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, “I’ll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won’t be a member of society anymore.” That really means, “I won’t be a human being anymore.”

You see people doing that today where they feel that society has let them down, and they can’t ask anything of it, and they can’t put their hopes on anything outside themselves. You see them actually retreating to a life in which they think only of their own satisfaction, and maybe the satisfaction of their revenge against society. But the life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the political community is not a human life any longer.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book.' Click image for details.

Things get significantly more complicated, however, when we find ourselves in binds that seem to call for tragedy by asking us to make impossible choices between multiple things we hold dear. Nussbaum illustrates this by pointing to Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, in which the king-protagonist has to choose between saving his army and saving his daughter. The same tragedy plays out on a smaller scale in everyday dilemmas, such as juggling your career with being a good parent. Most of the time, as Nussbaum puts it, the two “enrich each other and make the life of each of them better.” But sometimes, practical circumstances pose such insurmountable challenges like an important meeting and your child’s school play happening at the same time — one of these two priorities inevitably suffers, not because you are a bad parent or a bad leader, but because life just happens that way. Therein lies the human predicament — the more we aspire to live well, according to our commitments and priorities, the more we welcome such tragic choices. And yet the solution isn’t not to aspire. Nussbaum tells Moyers:

Tragedy happens only when you are trying to live well, because for a heedless person who doesn’t have deep commitments to others, Agamemnon’s conflict isn’t a tragedy…

Now the lesson certainly is not to try to maximize conflict or to romanticize struggle and suffering, but it’s rather that you should care about things in a way that makes it a possibility that tragedy will happen to you. If you hold your commitments lightly, in such a way that you can always divest yourself from one or the other of them if they conflict, then it doesn’t hurt you when things go badly. But you want people to live their lives with a deep seriousness of commitment: not to adjust their desires to the way the world actually goes, but rather to try to wrest from the world the good life that they desire. And sometimes that does lead them into tragedy.

Perhaps Alan Watts was right when he advised not to fight the world’s contradictions but to conceive of the universe as “a harmonious system of contained conflicts.”

Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring many more conversations with luminaries spanning art, science, psychology, literature, the creative spirit, and just about every aspect of life. Complement this particular one with Nussbaum’s advice on living a full life.

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13 MARCH, 2014

March 13, 1964: What the Kitty Genovese Murder Teaches Us About Empathy, Apathy, and Our Human Predicament

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“How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do?”

In the small hours of March 13, 1964, a young Italian-American woman in Queens got attacked, raped, and stabbed to death seventeen times over the course of half an hour outside her small apartment house on Austin Street in Kew Gardens. Thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed the attack. No one did anything to stop it. No one called the police. No one seemed to care. The murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese became one of modern history’s most unsettling and confounding conundrums for generations of psychologists, sociologists, and ordinary people alike. How can we accept that thirty-eight ordinary middle-class citizens — people with good jobs and good families and good homes, people with beige carpets — could slide so far down on the scale from empathy to apathy as to allow for such brutality to happen right before their eyes? What does this say about the human spirit, and how can we make sense of it without losing faith in humanity?

That, and its many complicated dimensions, is what A. M. Rosenthal, who would go on to become the most controversial executive editor The New York Times has ever had, explores in the slim but tremendously impactful book Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (public library). Rosenthal himself was responsible for bringing public attention to Genovese’s story in an era when the Times gave any murder in Queens no more than four paragraphs, a time when the invisible “relationship of color and geography to crime news” permeated the media. But Rosenthal, having just been appointed Metropolitan Editor of the Times after years at the paper’s foreign bureaus in India, Poland, and Japan, took it upon himself to get to know the men — for in that era, they were only men — who ran the city, from the Mayor to the bankers to the playwrights. One of them was Michael Joseph Murphy, the New York City Police Commissioner — a man “who looks like a tough Irish cop because he is a tough Irish cop but who also happens to be a man of knowledge and sensitivity,” a man who goes to the same restaurant for lunch, always sits with his back to the wall (an old police habit), and “orders shrimp curry and rice in the touching belief that the dish is somehow non-caloric.” (Yes, besides being a formidable journalist, Rosenthal, who died in 2006, was also an enchanting storyteller.)

Catherine Genovese

Over one such lunch near City Hall, hours after the murder had been reported, Commissioner Murphy shared with Rosenthal his preoccupation with this chilling case in which thirty-eight neighbors had failed to help a dying 28-year-old woman. Rosenthal first thought the details were an exaggeration, but the Commissioner wistfully assured him, “Yes, thirty-eight. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.” There and then, Rosenthal knew it would be an important story — not only for its newsworthiness in crime reporting, but also for the broader philosophical questions it raises about our human predicament. He was right — the Times ran the story the next day, and it was immediately picked up by other mass media. The case soon became “a stunning example of apathy — other people’s apathy.” But behind that veneer of otherness hide some of the darkest potentialities of our own selves.

Rosenthal captures the murder’s enduring haunt:

The Kitty Genovese story, the Genovese case, has become both a quick, puffy cliché for apathy and cowardice about the suffering of others, and an intellectual and religious puzzlement: what does it mean to me? To me, you, we.

That is the power of the Genovese matter. It talks to us not about her, a subject that was barely of fleeting interest to us, but about ourselves, a subject never out of our minds.

Catherine Genovese

Rosenthal wrote the book shortly after the murder and it was originally published at the end of 1964, partly as a reporter’s account of the precise details of the case, and partly as a philosopher’s meditation on the elements of human nature and social dynamics that made this brutality possible. In 1995, it was reprinted with a new introduction by Rosenthal, who had spent thirty-five years contemplating the case — thirty-five years during which social psychologists had come up with the influential theory of pluralistic ignorance and the bystander effect in trying to explain what happened. But for Rosenthal, the case, with its question of why thirty-eight witnesses refused to help, was still a microcosm of the choices we all make, every day, in how we relate to the world. He writes in the 1995 introduction:

As I was writing Thirty-Eight Witnesses, I felt the question should be reworded so: would I ever refuse again?

I knew most of us had refused in the past, so often that we had become unaware of what we were doing.

I have walked past lepers and beggars scores of times in Asia. Any help from me, the merest, would have been of importance to them. They were terribly sick; I saw their sores. If they were professional beggars, as I told myself, did that salve their sores or straighten the limbs of the twisted children they held up, rented or not?

[…]

But the mystery for all of us about the Genovese case was how could it have happened that thirty-eight people, thirty-eight, heard the screams and did nothing. Two or three, all right, maybe even a half dozen — it could happen. But everybody, all thirty-eight of them?

I was trying hard to be candid with myself, but not hard enough. Now and for some years I have realized that I failed to ask the question that might have answered the mystery of so many silent witnesses on Austin Street.

Who was walking with me on that street in Calcutta or New Delhi and not stopping to give help? Not thirty-eight people, but hundreds at any one moment, thousands in an hour.

In the middle of a cold night, thirty-eight people refused the risk of being stabbed or getting involved by answering a cry for help of a person they could not see. Is that a greater mystery, a greater offense, than that by light of day thousands on a single street withhold help to suffering people, when it would cost them virtually nothing and put them in no peril, even though they see their faces and sores?

It is a poignant question, and a prescient one, as we face a growing disconnect between the haves and the have-nots in the world today. For all those fighting global poverty, how many do nothing? And when one of the most fundamental human rights — the right to love — is being denied to a great many fellow human beings, how many raise their voices? How many perch out of our proverbial windows and look on as the tragedy of the “other” unfolds?

With equal poignancy, Rosenthal questions how we hide behind physical space and use distance as a currency of apathy — an observation all the more prescient in our day and age of military drones, where the combination of new technology and basic human psychology makes soldiers deadlier at a distance as they find it easier to kill someone far away than to shoot them at close range. Rosenthal’s closing words land like poison darts at our darkest, most self-conscious fears about what it means to be — or to fail at being — a good human:

How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something.

Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Austin Street, or from here to the gulags or the dungeons for political and religious prisoners anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the thirty-eight? Tell me, what question is more important than the one Catherine Genovese put to me for years when I sat down to write my columns for the Times — how far?

Thirty-Eight Witnesses is a remarkable read in its entirety — undeniably difficult, but undeniably important. Complement it with the equally disquieting Stanford Prison Experiment, then see psychologist David DeSteno on the psychology of good and evil in all of us.

Thanks, Andrew

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