Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

28 MARCH, 2014

How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

By:

“Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett (b. March 28, 1942), whom artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky has called “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russell,” poses an apt question that probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics of today’s everyone-is-a-critic culture: “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us Dennett on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes — he offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-of-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments.

But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag’s three steps to refuting any argument, and treat yourself to Dennett’s wholly excellent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 MARCH, 2014

Viktor Frankl on the Art of Presence as a Lifeboat in Turbulent Times and What Suffering Teaches Us About the Meaning of Life

By:

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden.”

The life-story of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, born on March 26, 1905, is one of history’s greatest testaments to the tenacity of the human spirit. In his remarkable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library), previously discussed at length here, Frankl reflects on what his devastating time at Auschwitz taught him about the most essential driver of life — the inextinguishable human hunger for meaning, which separated those who survived from those who perished.

In one particularly poignant passage of the book, Frankl reminds us that the art of presence — an art so central to our everyday well-being — isn’t merely about savoring the pleasant moments of everyday blessedness. Rather, its canvas stretches all the more exquisitely in precisely the opposite circumstances — those most trying and turbulent moments, when the ability to inhabit the present makes all the difference between life and death, both figuratively in matters of the soul and, in Frankl’s Auschwitz experience, literally and bodily:

A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our “provisional existence” as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

To be sure, Frankl is far from advocating for filtering the present through rose-colored glasses in order to soften its intolerable pain. Quite the opposite — much like John Cage came to believe when he discovered Buddhism, Frankl argues that presence comes from leaning into suffering, not from tensing against it:

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Frankl points to commitment, be it to human relationships — “the soft bonds of love [which] are indifferent to life and death,” to use Isaac Asimov’s poetic language — or to purposeful work and cultural contribution, as the essential anchor of presence, the umbilical cord that links those in the most trying of circumstances to their own lives:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a remarkable read, life-changing in the most earnest sense of the phrase. See more of it here, though no annotated excerpt could possibly do justice to the expansive richness of its entirety.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

17 MARCH, 2014

George Lucas on the Meaning of Life

By:

“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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.