Tuesday, May 15, 2012

FAHE Meets in Wilmington

The next meeting of FAHE will be at Wilmington College this June.
As it so happens, I've recently relocated to Wilmington, OH. I'm not currently teaching, but I look forward to seeing F/friends if time allows.

I've only just found John Fitzgerald's blog, but this post in particular may be of interest to those reading this blog:
On Being a Quaker and a Philosopher.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Visualizing a Healthy Planet

Modern Quakers don’t talk a lot about faith and hope, but they are an important part of our relationship to the earth and to God. Seeing the world through spiritual eyes requires that we see the kingdom of heaven both as not yet and as already here. For centuries the populations of two of the largest nations on Earth, India and China, remained trapped in abject poverty and showed no signs of progress. But in the last twenty years both these nations have experienced a huge shift which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. When people rise out of poverty they have fewer children and they use resources more efficiently. When we visualize a healthy planet I think we want to visualize good lives for all Earth’s people. Visualize all the world’s poor finding productive jobs and being able to live decent, comfortable lives.
With the Cold War over, only the United States remains fully militarized. We spend as much on war and preparations for war as the rest of the world combined. If this changed, it would mean a huge transfer of resources towards constructive activity. At the moment about half of America’s engineers are employed designing weapons. Visualize all those engineers working steadily away at making little improvements in solar panels, electric cars, commuter trains, etc.
And we should not be afraid to dream big dreams. Imagine the Sahara Desert covered with a solar energy grid supplying the energy needs of both Europe and Africa. Imagine huge wind farms on the great plains of Siberia supplying clean energy to China and Russia. A healthy planet does not require that people go back to living in the Stone Age. The way humans live on this planet now is not sustainable. But that is because we believe we must live with war and with a huge gap between rich and poor. A world of peace and social justice would be a world of small families living in modest comfort. Such a world is not impossible in the least. It is a dream we must dream with all the passion and the faith we can muster to make it real.
The prophets of Israel looked and saw a spiritual picture of how God’s world could and would be. They visualized “every man neath his vine and fig tree” beating swords into ploughshares. Faith and hope tap into the power of God and make visions real.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Short History of the Protestant Reformation

Human beings are evil. Everything we do is evil. Any appearance of humans seemingly doing good things is an illusion. When a person seems to be doing something good it is actually God who is doing the good act. The person remains completely evil. There is no such thing as free will which would allow people to choose to do good or choose to do evil. We are all evil and have no choice about it. Since everyone is evil without a single ounce of goodness, justice demands that everyone go to hell and suffer for eternity. Jesus however was perfectly good. He did not deserve any suffering at all because he was perfectly good. However, he did suffer and die. Now comes the really tricky part. God can now pardon any sinner he chooses to pardon because his sense of justice has been satisfied by the fact that an innocent person has been punished. Since everyone is equally and completely guilty God has no basis at all for pardoning one person rather than another. So he grants this pardon to some people for no reason at all and withholds this pardon from others for no reason at all. Those whom he pardons are those to whom he gives the “gift of faith.” (This is where it all comes around full circle.) Being given the gift of faith means God has caused you to believe the tricky part! Faith is believing what I called the tricky part. How do we know this is true? It is true because this is what Paul says in his epistles, chiefly Romans. Now Christians had read Paul for fifteen centuries before Luther picked him up and nobody ever found this doctrine in Paul before. How do we know this is what Paul meant? Well, because this is the “plain and obvious” reading of Paul and being given the gift of faith means that you do find this in Paul. Not being able to find this in Paul means you have not been given the gift of faith and so are not among the lucky to be pardoned. Sorry about that. Maybe you will just get lucky later. As one of the blessed lucky few I’ll pray for you. As for me I’m feeling really happy and relieved that I will spend eternity in paradise because I do believe the tricky part.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Focus in the Classroom

This semester I am trying two new things in my classes.

First of all, I am declaring the classroom a "technology-free" zone. While in the past I've only had a few students bring laptops, and those students have been good students who remained highly engaged in class, last semester suddenly a lot of students started bringing laptops and smartphones, using them in ways that clearly disengaged them from class discussions. It also became clear that those students missed a lot that we went over in class. So, this semester I am going to ban laptop computers, cell phones, and smartphones from class, explaining that I want us to focus on each other and on the discussion happening in the classroom.

Second, I am going to start each class with five minutes of quiet meditation. I have in the past used meditation in some classes, where it was obviously relevant to introduce students to a variety of meditation techniques. And the students have really loved this. And so now I've decided to do this in all of my classes, and for every class session, simply because it is good for us. It quiets the mind, and prepares us all to focus.

Related to both of the above, I am going to make time now and then to talk in class about how to think more consciously about how we live our lives.

I'll report back about how this goes.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Public vs. Private

As a society we have divided into Red and Blue ghettoes. Liberals and conservatives talk only to each other and look with contempt on those in the opposite camp. The complaints that each side makes about the other offer a curious parallel. Conservatives claim that liberals are too individualistic when it comes to sex. There need to be public standards of sexual behavior, conservatives think. Liberals tend to think that homosexuals should be allowed to marry, that adults should not discourage teenagers from having sex so long as they use condoms, that women can raise children just fine without fathers, that high divorce rates are nothing to worry about and that couples living together for short or long periods of time without marriage is fine and healthy. Conservatives tend to disagree with all of the above. They would usually encapsulate their views on sex as “supporting marriage” and they would describe this collection of liberal attitudes as “attacking marriage.” In short, conservatives think that sex is not a purely private matter and that society as a whole should exercise some measure of control over the sexual behavior of individuals. Hard line conservatives want standards of sexual conduct enforced with legal sanctions. Liberal individualism about sex is seen as promotion of selfishness that is destructive to a healthy social order. Conservatives see a social order breaking down with harmful effects on everyone. Leaving individuals completely “free” to pursue their own sexual happiness leads to the destruction of the familial relations which are the essential to the health of society and ultimately to the happiness of individuals themselves. The search for sexual gratification unrestricted by social sanctions of any kind paradoxically leads to individual misery.
When it comes to money conservatives think that liberals are not individualistic enough. Here the key word is not “marriage” but “socialism.” Liberals want the government to be active in solving some of society’s problems. Government should place restrictions of business to protect the environment from degradation, to protect workers from discrimination based on sex or race, to protect consumers from dangerous and defective products. They want society to support healthcare, education, and public transportation. Liberals recognize that all this costs money and see nothing wrong with taxing the rich to pay for it. When it comes to money, conservatives think, individuals should do whatever they want and the public needs to back off. Taxes should be low and rates should not be higher for the wealthy. People should pay for their own medical care and for the educational needs of their own children. If they feel their employer is discriminating against them, they should quit and find a new job. Consumers should protect themselves by researching products before they buy them. And finally, the threat that unrestricted business activity poses to the environment is wildly exaggerated.
Looking at society from the liberal point of view reverses all this as if looking into a mirror. Conservative resistance to “socialism” is a sign of selfish individualism which blinds itself to public good. Economic activity is too important to be left to unrestricted free markets. Laissez faire capitalism would naturally destroy our natural environment, reduce the middle class to poverty, and ultimately destroy itself by collecting more and more wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Common sense demands a measure of public control of economic activity because completely “free” economic activity leads to moral disaster. On the sexual side of things, conservatives lack respect for individuals and their power to make choices unconstrained by society. The conservative sneer at “socialism” in economic matters is paralleled here by the liberal sneer at the “Puritanism” of conservatives.
The Red/Blue divide thus takes the shape of a disagreement about where to draw the line between public and private. Liberals want sexual relations to be purely private but think there should be a larger measure of public control of economic relations. Conservatives believe that society must support marriage and exert some measure of control over personal sexual behavior but that society should never interfere with “capitalistic acts between consenting adults.” Both sides see themselves as being unbending defenders of freedom where they think such freedom is appropriate and as being sensible opponents of due restraint where they think that such “freedom” is actually selfish irresponsibility.
In 1982 MacIntyre described our modern situation as a desolate one in which people could not reason with each other about what was right and what was wrong and instead could only express their anger and engage in ruthless political maneuvering to achieve their own favored ends. Now that we are in the second decade of the 21st century the modern situation looks even more like this than it did in 1982. Few, very few, liberals will actually make a serious attempt to argue that unrestricted sexual behavior will actually promote the well-being of society. Generally this is simply assumed and those who disagree are sneered at. Few, very few, conservatives will actually make a serious attempt to argue that the invisible hand of the marketplace solves all problems in the long run. Generally the mere use of the label “socialism” is considered enough of an argument.
Pity the poor moderate who seeks compromise and gets sneered at by both sides.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Teaching to students with disabilities

What has been your experience teaching to deaf and hard-of-hearing students?

A little background:
I will be teaching at RIT starting next week, and a significant part of the RIT culture is the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. 9 out of the 75 students currently signed up for my courses are in the NTID; in orientation we've already been given some preliminary tips on how to integrate these students into the class, and of course there are many other resources available at RIT.

That said, in my decade plus of teaching, I've only had one deaf student, and it was a mixed experience for me. I got used to having a translator in the classroom, and had positive interactions with the student in and out of class. However, her written work seemed limited by the grammar of ASL, and I worried that my lectures never quite made it through translation (admittedly, she should have been able to keep up through the required reading).

Do you have any positive (or negative) experiences you'd be willing to share?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Avatar and Philosophy

The idea of modern European/American people “going native” is not new. At first it was overwhelmingly viewed as a very bad thing. As far back as the 17th century the Pope worried that the missionaries he had sent to covert the Chinese were becoming Chinese instead. After James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans Americans devoured horror stories about white women being forced to go native. In the 19th century the British worried about officers and men stationed too long in India losing their British identity and this is a theme in some of Kipling’s tales. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) depicts going native in Africa as a horrifying descent into madness and evil. At some point in the 20th century the tide shifted and “going native” started to seem appealing rather than appalling. Dancing with Wolves depicts a white American shifting loyalty from American culture to the Lakota as something positive. In 2010 Avatar takes the going native theme and transports it into a beautiful science fiction setting and becomes the most popular movie of all times. Is this merely due to the stunning visual effects or did the movie make the idea of going native hypnotically appealing?

In Avatar Jake, a paraplegic ex-Marine is feeling useless and abandoned in an ugly world. The world of 2154 in which Jake lives is much like ours but darker, dirtier and nastier. Nature has been all but completely destroyed and human relationships are coarse, violent and exploitive. Medical science has the ability to heal Jake and let him walk again but society won’t pay for the operation. Jake has been left by society to fend for himself and he’s not doing very well. Jake shows no trace of anger or rebelliousness at his treatment by society. His whole attitude and demeanor is that of hopelessness. Jake is offered a chance to pay for the operation and get his legs back by taking his brother’s place in an expedition to an alien world. The organization that hires Jake has tremendous resources at its disposal and pursues its economic ends with unblinking ruthlessness. His mission is to infiltrate the alien culture and get them to sell their natural resources in exchange for modern consumer goods. But the Na’vi do not like the deal. They prefer to live simple lives in harmony with each other and with the animals and plants that make up their natural environment. They do not want to be like us. They don’t want to trade their forest homes for Ipods. Jake is stranded among the natives. They don’t like Jake but they take him in. They live in harmony with nature and with each other. Jake comes to feel that that this simple natural life is better than the world he left behind. A moment of crisis arrives and Jake finds his loyalties have firmly switched to his new people. There is a climactic battle in which the Na’vi win and a conclusion in which Jake abandons his human body and permanently becomes an alien.

The movie appeals to so many because so many feel like Jake does at the beginning of the story. He feels as though he’s been used and abandoned by a grimy, violent, uncaring society. Jake sees no reason to hope that things will get better for himself or for society as a whole. Life is hard and business is business. Nothing, not nature or the feelings of sensitive people, is going to interfere with the juggernaut of modern civilization. Mother Nature and poor little Jake are powerless. Resistance, shall we say, is futile. In the movie Jake escapes from the bleakness of modern life and finds love, harmony and right order among the Na’vi. The feel-good victory of Mother Nature depicted in the film is exposed as fantasy by the time the moviegoer gets to the parking lot to drive home. You are not on Pandora and there’s no way back. We told you that resistance was futile. Little wonder that some moviegoers felt depressed in the weeks following the movie.

Why is any of this of interest to a philosopher? Because it is evidence that many people feel something is deeply wrong with modern society and the lives it encourages us to live. Things are not in right order. If there is a deep dissatisfaction with the way things are then this is a call to philosophers to think deeply about how things should be.