Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 7. The Difference It Makes

According to Dweck, the fixed mindset fellow not only tends to be a lower achiever and more readily abandons effort, but faces other problems.  Success for a fixed mindset is all about displaying how innately smart or talented you are. Success is a way of validating yourself and your own in-born talent.  Excessive effort is seen as evidence of a lack of this in-born talent.  Criticism is always seen as a challenge to one’s own validation and not well-received.  So, it’s harder for fixed mindset people to acknowledge and correct errors.  Fixed mindset people also tend to avoid new things, as it may expose weakness.  On those rare occasions where they are forced to confront something new, they resort to blame, excuses and the stifling of critics and rivals.  Mistakes can be fatal to their self-confidence because they attribute errors to an innate lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change, and not any lack of effort.

The person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, does not look at success or falure as a reflection of any innate talent but only of their own effort or approach to the issue.  Consequently, failure doesn’t bother them as much and criticism become an opportunity to learn and grow.  They actually welcome criticism, because they recognize that, with it, they can learn and improve their skills.  As a result, they are ready to take on challenges, they are not afraid of mistakes, and they bounce back from failures.  Indeed, they believe that error or criticism says nothing about themselves innately, but only about their lack of effort.  Their frequent response to set backs:  “If I had only tried harder.”

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 6. The Work of Carol Dweck and Others

As a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s, Dweck was initially interested in the idea of “learned helplessness.”  Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after enough failures to remedy a situation, most animals conclude that things are hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when restrictions are removed and it can in fact begin to exert control. 

Dweck discovered that people are also subject to learned helplessness – a few set backs can convince them that they have no control over a situation even after avenues of opportunity later open up to them.  They can no longer conceive of themselves as being able to change their current circumstances.  Dweck also discovered, however, that unlike animals, not everyone reacts the same way to setbacks.  Some people have more resilience than others.  She began to look for what accounted for the differences. 

Beginning in 1978, Dweck, assisted by then-graduate student Carol Diener, conducted a study involving fifth and sixth graders in which she, first, gave the students a questionnaire designed to identify the child’s attitude toward failure.  The children were then grouped based on whether the child believed overall that failure was a circumstance beyond his or her control or whether a child believed that failure or success was something he or she could influence. 

Dweck then gave the children a series of 12 problems.  The first eight were all solvable by the children; the last four were beyond their training by some two grade levels.  As part of the study, the children were told to talk out loud about their thoughts as they were working on the problems.

According to Dweck, the difference between the two groups was striking.  The group which had been previously identified as having a helpless attitude toward failure didn’t make much effort on the four difficult problems and gave up almost immediately.  And, they relied on essentialist thinking to explain their failure.  They said things like, “I guess I’m not very smart,”  “I never did have a good memory,” or “I’m no good at things like this.”

The students in second group were not discouraged by the problems and persisted in working on them, even though the problems were beyond their ability.  They had the attitude that, if only they tried harder or approached the problem in some new way, they could solve it.  The big surprise, however, came when Dweck realized that some of the children who put forth lots of effort, not only didn’t accept any lack of ability as the reason for their failure, but they didn’t try to explain away their failure at all.  These children, Dweck concluded, simply didn’t perceive that they were failing.  Diener put it this way: “Failure is information – we label it failure, but [for these children] it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’”  They instinctively recognized that even the idea of failure is not a pre-determined matter, but was up for them to decide.  Their response was not unlike that of Thomas Edison – when he was asked about his lack of success in developing the storage battery, he answered: "I have not failed; I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Then, in another study, this time by Dweck and Lisa Blackwell, several hundred low-achieving seventh graders participated in eight sessions on study skills and the brain.  Once again, we have two groups:  one group attended a neutral session on memory while the other group also learned that intelligence, like a muscle, grows stronger through exercise.   The group that attended the sessions that taught that intelligence can be developed improved measurably both study habits and grades.  Students in the control group showed no improvement despite all the other interventions.

And then, in the late 1990s, Joshua Aronson, who now teaches psychology at New York University, along with two colleagues, adopted Dweck's model by asking Stanford students to write letters to local middle-school “pen pals” that encouraged the younger students to persist in their studies. They were encouraged to tell the middle schoolers things like, “Humans are capable of learning and mastering new things at any time in their lives.”

The focus on the study was on the Stanford students themselves, as it turns out.  Compared to members of a control group, these Stanford students earned higher grades three months later, and were more likely to report that they enjoyed academic work. The effects were especially strong among African-American students, who were overrepresented in the study.

So, we can see that behavior changes based on whether you have a growth or existentialist mindset, or a fixed or essentialist mindset.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Simple Truths

In this era of such complex, mind-boggling scientific ideas as quantum entanglement and string theory, science still comes up with some refreshingly simple, easily understood conclusions.

Here's one:   The longest-running longitudinal studies of human development, began in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 75 years, measuring an astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits—from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of his scrotum”—in an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human well-being.  George Vaillant, who directed the study for more than three decades, had this to say recently about the study:  “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ”  See What Makes Us Happy, Revisited.  (This recalls the oft-cited -- at least by me --  letter from another scientist:  "Dear Mrs Chown, Ignore your son's attempts to teach you physics.  Physics is not the most important thing, love is. Richard Feynman.")

Here's another:  The Sax Institute's "45 and Up Study," the largest ongoing study of healthy aging in the Southern Hemisphere, follows some 250,000 Australian adults 45 years and older.   One of the conclusions from the study is -- again fairly easy to understand:  people who sit the most die the soonest.  Or, as someone else put it:  sitting = death.  See Confirmed: He Who Sits the Most Dies the Soonest.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Terrence Malick's movies incorrectly reviewed

I haven't posted in a while, but this article made me want to see Malick's new movie (and the Tree of Life):


Has anyone seen either of these? Any thoughts? I'll have to rent them before commenting further. Interesting though that this guy seems to think so many reviewers have completely missed the point of these two movies. I don't know what it says about the movies or Malick, but certainly damning the intellect of movie reviewers.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 5. Fixed and Growth Mindsets

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, in the course of many years of research, has found that people by and large possess one of two mindsets or theories about themselves.  Some people hold what she calls a “fixed or entity” mindset.  A person with a fixed mindset, Dweck explains, believes that people are all born with a certain set of skills and competencies. We either have a talent for something or we don't.  You have artistic ability or not; you have language skills or not; you are a great natural leader or not.  You have no say in the matter.

On the other end of the spectrum is what Dweck calls the “growth” (or malleable or incremental) mindset.  Growth mindset people believe that qualities can be developed with effort and instruction, and that it is possible to generate their own talent.  For those with a full-bore growth mindset, practically anything is possible.

In other words, Dweck – who, as far as I know, has no background in philosophy whatsoever – has discovered that people tend to be either essentialists or existentialists, at least about themselves.

Carol Dweck

Next:  The Work of Carol Dweck and Others

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 4. The Question

So far, I 've just given you a little background concerning two philosophical positions.  But it is important background nonetheless and must be fully understood, or, as Dickens related elsewhere, "nothing wonderful can come of the stor[ies] I am going to relate. "  (Somehow Dickens seems to be hanging around this entire enterprise.  See Tenacious Posts).

Also, now that I'm waist deep in this thing, I realize that I've totally misnamed the project.  This series really has nothing to do with practical benefits of anything.  If you're looking for some kind of tangible gain or profit from this string of posts, I'm afraid you'll be sadly disappointed.  So, in the interst of full disclosure, these posts should probably called something like:  the real-life consequences of holding a philosophical view or belief.

I could go back and change the title, but it might make things confusing.  So we'll just shoulder on the best we can.  Which brings me now to "The Question."

*     *     *

We have looked the basics of essentialism and existentialism.  My purpose in this series, however, is not to debate which position is correct, although I have my suspicions.  A Freakonomics column in the New York Times Magazine back on May 7, 2006, asked this question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?  And, turning to the studies of K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, the authors conclude that “the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”  This would seem to be a strike against essentialism.  (Although Jim tells the possibly apocryphal story about how he once posed this question to the great Ericsson himself at one of his lectures:  is the willingness to strive to make oneself great inborn or not.  Ericsson reportedly had no answer and walked away in silence.)

In any event, here is my real point:  what you believe about what precedes what ends up affecting how you live.  If you believe that existence precedes essence – that you yourself and not some predetermined trait determines who you are – you will behave one way.  And, if you believe that essence precedes existence, or that there is a preordained way for you to be, you will behave another way.  We look at this next.

Next:  Fixed and Growth Mindsets

Monday, April 22, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 3. Existentialism

From the 1926 to 1973, a large electric sign greeted train travelers going in and out of Chester, Pennsylvania -- a town near Philadelphia -- that simply stated “What Chester Makes Makes Chester” – a reference to the city’s former stature as a recognized manufacturing power.  I don’t know if anyone from the Philadelphia Electric Company, the outfit that erected the sign, appreciated this, but the sign suggests a new non-Aristotelian way of looking at what makes a thing be what it is.

As Jim now knows well from his DVD course, any number of centuries after Aristotle, Jean Paul Sartre challenged Aristotle’s essentialism.  Sartre attacked the notion that there are pre-existing blueprints and declared that – at least for us humans – “existence precedes essence.”  In other words, a person appears on the scene and then chooses what he or she will become. For Sartre, the first principle of existentialism is this: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”

Sartre does not deny that human beings are limited or constrained by all sorts of external or internal conditions. A paraplegic is not free to become a long distance runner (although with the advanced technology of artificial limbs, this is not always true).  Freedom exists only within specific conditions. But within such given conditions, people always have choices to make to define who they are. They are not predetermined like objects or animals; they live within a space of possible alternatives.  What Chester makes does indeed make Chester.

So, according to Sartre, no one can simply say, “it was in my nature” as an excuse for behavior.  Ultimately, whatever a person is, that existence is dependent upon his or her own choices and commitments.  People have no one to blame (or praise) but themselves.  Thus, says Sartre, the task of existentialism is to make everyone understand that they are responsible for their own existence.

Next:  The Question

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Where's the NBA when we need it?

This is the perfect time for the National Bomb Association to bribe members of Congress to support legislation for the right to bear arms in the form of bombs. Take a lesson from the NRA. (Aren't bombs just the AK47 of firecrackers?)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Boston April 2013

Back when I was in law school, I ran a 5 mile race in North Park.  They happened to be running a marathon the same day over the same course as I ran – only that I ran it once, and the marathoners had to run it 5 times and then some. 

Once our race ended, we stayed around and watched some of the marathoners finish.  I remember one fellow in particular clearly in pain, straining his utmost on obviously totally spent legs.  When he hit the finish line, he gave out a cry of exultation followed by open weeping.  He had seen his time and knew he had qualified for the Boston Marathon by just a few seconds.

I read an article recently that asked the question:   is there a group of people with more will than a group of Boston Marathon qualifiers?   The article suggests that these were the wrong people to try and intimidate.  I’m guessing that they’ll all be back next year.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Day I Met Kurt Vonnegut

I met Kurt Vonnegut through Joseph Heller. Yes, I traveled in those kinds of literary circles—but only for a day. It was a day that will take pretty severe Alzheimer's to forget.

While I would not view my life as Vonnegut once described the American experience: "an impossibly tough-minded experiment in loneliness", I am, as many judge themselves, shy. I've encountered obstacles and missed opportunities because of it. Like most shy people, I try to compensate.

So it was a supreme act of compensation when I hesitantly approached the desk of my 'Modern Novel' professor after class to ask if I could attend a cocktail party for Joseph Heller. I explained that I was writing a paper for his class about the time element in Catch 22 and needed clarification on a particular sequence of events. I didn't tell him that after reading the book two or three times and studying it as if it were the Paris Metro map, I had discovered an inconsistency—as if that meant something. If you are familiar with the book, you may remember that temporal events are as confusing as war-time morality. It is central to the structure of the novel—but only because it is tangled. For some strange reason that I can only attribute to my future accounting sensibilities, I felt that straightening out the jumbled mess chronologically would reveal some higher meaning. Wait, who am I trying to kid? I analytically mapped out every incident repeated ad infinitum in the book and found a chronological error, and thought that by confronting the great Joseph Heller, I would be hailed with English esteem everywhere as the one who unraveled Catch 22. Think about that for a second. I wanted to unravel Catch 22, a book I loved, as if it were some sterile scientific entrails—perhaps Snowden's. Well, maybe that is the apprehensively meticulous way a shy person approaches life.

Maybe the truth lay somewhere in between. I did love the book. I did find what appeared to be an error in the chronology of events. I did want to ask Joseph Heller about my discovery. But mostly I desperately wanted to meet and talk with the man who wrote this wondrous book that couldn't be read in the library because I would vocally burst out laughing.

Something about my story sounded sincere or at least elicited pity, for he gave me his permission and the address of the professor's house where the selective gathering would take place. The party was an afternoon affair held prior to Mr. Heller's talk on campus at Washington Hall, the 130 year old auditorium that sits to the right of the administration building, the one with the gold dome. The day was Thursday, April 4, 1968, my final year of college.

Let me back track a bit. This was 1968, the year of student demonstrations (of which, thus far, we had failed miserably), campus riots, the My Lai massacre, the Tet offensive, Robert Kennedy's assassination, LBJ's stepping down, the Chicago Democratic Convention, and a whole series of circumstances which would turn society on its head. Lost as a consequential event, however, was the inaugural Notre Dame Sophomore Literary Festival, billed as the 2nd annual—a Vonnegut-ism, surely. The year before, a student from Mississippi had put together a literary event to celebrate William Faulkner. But, for all practical purposes, the 2nd Annual Notre Dame Sophomore Literary Festival was the first of its kind—one which would bring every major writer to campus for the next 25 years.

During this week of March 31, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, William Buckley Jr., Wright Morris, and, yes, Kurt Vonnegut spoke on campus. As English professor Don Costello said years later, "Of course, it couldn't be done. That's the beauty of the naïve sophomores. They were too naïve to know it couldn't work." Both the Saturday Review and the New York Times ran articles about that first (2nd annual) event. The festival's run lasted until 1996 when authors expected more for personal appearances. Recently, a more modest version has been revived.

The 1968 festival, by whatever name, was the child of sophomore, John Mroz, the Steve Jobs of Notre Dame, if this excerpt is any indication:

"We were pretty aggressive, to say the least," said Mroz, describing trips out to New York and California where the students literally knocked on the authors' doors to persuade them to come to the festival. 
The famously reclusive Ellison was stunned to see a group of college kids on his doorstep. 
"He said, `I told you `No' by letter, I told you `No' by phone and now here you are at my door in New York!'" remembered Mroz. "But we got him to come."
Now I was coming too. I was elated and intimidated. I carefully crafted my supposed error in the book's time sequence and wrote it out on a slip of paper so I would not be confused in the asking. It was not straight forward and depended on evidence from a few different passages. I was getting more apprehensive by the moment.

At the appropriate time with the appropriate English-lit style sport coat, I handed the taxi cab driver the address. Soon I was in front of the small suburban home not far from campus. As soon as I entered I could see who must be Joseph Heller. He stood in the living room surrounded by university types—faculty and friends, I supposed, and the more diligent, less shy, students. In fact I remember more students than adults at the party; perhaps 20 or 30 people in all; maybe less. It was definitely an informal, relaxed occasion. Heller was dressed like a New York banker in a dark suit. He looked good, tanned for April, and was confidently fielding questions and comments from a circle of about a dozen admirers. He appeared to be holding court, articulate, and enjoying it.

I flittered around the outside circle catching bits of conversation. When not about his book, they centered around the war and socio-political issues—nothing new, curious, or radical, at least for the times. He was different than I expected for the author of maybe the funniest, darkest, most eccentric book I had read—three times. The atmosphere was just too encouragingly normal. The more I thought about trying to frame my question so it sounded intelligent, meaningful and respectful, the more reticent I became. Everyone here knew the emperor had splendid clothes. Why bring up the possibility of a small rip? After a while I defeatedly slunk off to the kitchen. Perhaps a drink would help.

The smallish, narrow kitchen was another world. There, in the corner on a stool slouched over the counter—as far away from the living room court as one could possibly get without leaving the house, sat a tall, disheveled man—the jester in Heller's retinue. His sport coat could have passed for one of our old, worn, food encrusted diner jackets ironically required for dining hall entry each night. He wore loose baggy pants and shirt, longish frizzy hair, and held a glass with a bottle beside him on the counter. And he chain smoked. Yes, he had comfortably dissolved my entire court metaphor into a bar scene. No one but students grouped around this man, and only three or four of them. Now this, obviously, was a writer.

I was immediately drawn to this character who I soon found out was Kurt Vonnegut—not that I knew anything about him at the time. Unfortunately, the kitchen was too narrow with a refrigerator of drinks inconveniently placed for me to get close enough to easily join in the conversation. I could scarcely follow it. But it was nothing like that in the living room. It sounded like the author was talking about spacemen—little ones, I think. Looking back, it was probably Tralfamadorians, but I hadn't read any of Vonnegut's books at this point. Rest assured he was as crazy, imaginative, and gentle as you picture him, but always with a touch of depression. I can barely remember the conversation, but if I had to guess, he touched on aliens, time travel, war, human cruelty and stupidity. I might have added a comment or two, but perhaps I was too shy to even do that. I mostly listened. Joseph Heller could be mistaken for a Wall Street banker; Kurt Vonnegut could only be the writer of his works.

If I was slightly disappointed at the normalcy of Joseph Heller, I was more than pleased with this strange, quirky author. He was neurotic enough to make me start to feel confident again about asking my question. Joseph Heller, I'm sure, would have attempted an answer; Kurt Vonnegut would have made an ironic joke out of it.

And then the news came on the TV and everything became subdued. The party was breaking up anyway as Joseph Heller had a talk to give. He wondered now if he should, but everything had been planned. It was the 2nd Annual Sophomore Literary Festival after all.

Fortunately, there was room in a car going to back to campus, and I grabbed a ride. I hardly remember the talk at Washington Hall though I'm sure I sat through it. Now it felt as inconsequential as my desire to hammer out a time line. Heller read excerpts from Catch 22 and some from his new play, We Bombed in New Haven. Polite applause, and everyone left—weighed by the news.

The next day before class my teacher asked me if I had found the answer to my question. I was too shy to answer truthfully. I lied and said I did, and thanked the professor for letting me attend the party. Perhaps I had been too shy to ask Heller. Perhaps I realized that the question and answer resolved nothing. Perhaps my factual discrepancy actually enhanced the novel by bringing the muddle to life. No matter how jumbled, no novel could match the jumble of life. I had discovered that humanity mattered more than fact. I had discovered a crazier humanity, who would become my favorite author for years. So I lied and said I had gotten my answer. In truth, when I did write my paper, I left out my finding entirely. In truth, the answer lay in what I would later find voiced in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, "God never wrote a good play." Everything turned out differently than expected. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 2. Essentialism

The ancient Greeks – Aristotle in particular – were fascinated by the idea that things could change and yet remain what they are.  We can crumple up a piece of paper and despite its change in shape it remains paper.  But, if we burn it, it stops being paper and becomes something else entirely – ashes.

Aristotle sought to explain this difference by saying that every object had two types of properties:  those that are only accidental to it and those that are essential to the object’s existence.  The essence of an object is a property or set of properties so fundamental to it that we cannot conceive of the object existing without that property.  An accident, however, is not fundamental to the being of the object, and it can continue to be what it is without that property.  Consequently, if an “accident” is changed, the object remains what it is.  But once an object’s essential quality is changed, the thing ceases to be what it is and becomes something else. 

For Aristotle, the ability to reason is an essential property of being human.  While reasoning ability might be addled in a madman, the madman still reasons.  But we cannot conceive – at least Aristotle couldn’t – of a human who entirely lacks the faculty of reason in a way that, for example, a plant does.  At the same time, there are innumerable qualities which any particular human being might possess but which are not essential to being human, such as height or hair or eye color.  These for Aristotle are accidents.

This distinction between accidental properties and essential properties of a thing has led some thinkers to conclude that in Aristotle’s system “essence precedes existence.”  In other words, there must already be some pre-existing blueprint to allow us to figure out which properties are only accidents and which are essential properties.  Properties are essential to a thing only if it was “meant” to have those properties.  Interestingly enough, the Greek phrase that the Romans translated into essentia was to ti ên einai, literally, “the what it was to be.”  The phrase itself suggests that the “what” existed before the thing itself.  For Aristotle, the essence of an object precedes its existence.
Here are a few sort of hot-button examples of essentialist thinking at work today.  The anti-same-sex marriage people take an essentialist view of marriage.  For them, an essential characteristic of the thing we call marriage is that it involves a single man and a single woman.  Any other arrangement – while it might be something else, like a civil union – is not marriage.   Similarly, there is a lot of essentialist thinking about men and women – women, the child-bearers, are more thoughtful and caring, while men are the leaders and risk-takers.  The leaders of the Catholic Church take an essentialist understanding of the priesthood, and cannot conceive of a priest as other than a male.  The main point of essentialism is that things are intended to be a certain way.

Similarly, we also give individuals essential characteristics, mostly ourselves.  How many times have we heard something like this:  “That’s just who I am,” “I’m no good at math,” or “I can’t eat Chinese food.”  In other words, according to this sort of essentialist thinking, there are particular characteristics that define you and make you who you are, without which you’d be someone else.  You cannot conceive of yourself as lacking this characteristic.  The presumption behind the advice to “be yourself” is that there is already a pre-existent blueprint of yourself to which you can conform.

Next:  Existentialism

Friday, April 12, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 1. Introduction

People like to say that philosophy offers no real, practical benefits, which is one way of saying that it’s pretty much just a waste of time. Oh sure, it’s fun to think about stuff, but what difference does it really make? 

I’ve long suspected, however, that a person’s big ideas actually do affect things, particularly his or her own behavior. Now, recent studies show that I may be correct after all. These studies were not conducted by philosophers or by anyone who knew anything much about philosophy. But they have a lot to say about the connection between particular understandings of the world and the way people act.

Today, I do not look at the broad spectrum of belief. That study will have to wait for another time. Rather, we will focus on one particular philosophical debate -- and see how behavior is affected based on where people stand in that debate. The dispute we consider is the argument between two philosophical viewpoints popularly known as essentialism and existentialism. 

 Stay tuned.


Next:  Essentialism

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tenacious Posts

As with all things, it started with games.  The first was Betwixt, a game that lacked only the insights we later gained from playing The Dasein Methods of Ordering Game.  Not long after that, we went to Pictures at an Exposition, which proved that appearances are often deceiving and that the answer to the question of "what is real" can be tricky.   At that point we graduated to real content and were introduced to Quantum Week, an exciting exploration of the quantum world.  This series was so well conceived and produced that I understand that one could obtain college credit for it from several prestigious universities.  Next came Kidnapped!  This was a serial adventure of one man's courage pitted against a sad example of human incompetence.  Unfortunately, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the story remains unfinished, and we are despairing over whether we will ever learn the final outcome.  ("Does Little Nell yet live?")  The next bit of serial writing was somewhat offbeat:  The Hermeneutics of Wishes.  Here, we learned what wishes were, why we have them and why we should worry about what we wish for.  If nothing else, we now know that every wish you make forecloses a thousand other wishes.  Finally, we have the most ambitious project to date:  The Top Ten Definitions of God.    As one commenter observed:  This series "delivered up for us a -- shall I say, joyous? -- array of views of the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men's minds."  Once you've read this series, you can skip seminary altogether and just send away for your ordination certificate.  And the beauty of this series is that it will qualify you for ordination in just about any religion.

These are what we might call the "series posts."  I've also called them chronic posts or tenacious posts:  they are persistent.  Up to now only Jim has offered them.  But, for the first time in the history of this blog, someone else will be posting a series, namely me.  The content I assure you will be totally new.  It goes by an inauspicious name:  The Practical Benefits of Philosophy.  I know it sounds a bit dry but, stay with it and I promise you that the rewards will be great.  Sure, it tackles philosophy, but it also considers psychology, education and even takes slight detours to Chester, Pennsylvania and Chicago.

I can't say exactly when each of the posts will appear.  Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in George C. Scott's "A Christmas Carol," being "more mercurial, [they] will arrive in [their] own time."

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Blog: More than just games and humor

I often wonder why more don't contribute to In Progress…or even read it (especially after Myk's promotional poem). Oh there are the usual suspects such as time, but I have a sneaking suspicion it is more than that. I also wonder, at least for those who don't read it, what they think it is. Bill, not long ago told me he has redoubled his efforts to contribute—to the point of changing his reading habits. I assumed he meant reading more about games and humor, which I suppose is the blog's trademark—indeed the trademark whenever we get together.

But I'm always looking to expand the core areas of interest. In this vein I'm making a post on gardening, one of the few subjects I'm not sure we have broached.

This year's favorite flower for me may be the icelandic poppy, also known as Papaver nudicaule.

The flower is a perennial, at least in zones 5 and above. Apparently it blooms in Europe, Asia, North America, and the mountains of Central Asia . . . but not in Iceland. The reasons for its favorite status with me this year are the following:

  • Orange is a favorite garden color of mine.
  • They bloom most of the summer. While the flowers themselves last only a couple of days, new ones constantly rise up on the foot-to-two-foot stems.
  • Last year they bloomed until frost.
  • They multiply. I assume by reseeding. I was shocked last year to find a dozen small plants growing when I had only purchased one the year before. (Actually I purchased two, but one died.)
  • This year I have a couple of dozen—one very large plant, a dozen medium-sized and perhaps a dozen small ones which I will transplant a little later to appropriate spots.
  • They require practically no care and are drought tolerant.
  • They attract hummingbirds—really!

Here is what they look like when first coming up. Luckily I did not weed them out last year.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Letter Not Sent

I did something some time ago that I’ve never done before in my entire life.  I was so angry over a sermon I heard at Mass one Sunday that I wrote as pointed a letter as I could muster to the responsible assistant pastor (now moved on).  When I began the letter I was absolutely resolved to send it.  But, by the time I had finished it, my anger had dissipated enough for me to realize that the whole project was pointless and self-indulgent.  So, the letter was never sent.

But, after spending so much time on it, I figured someone ought to read it.  So here, while we still bask in Easter’s glow, is the letter not sent.


Dear Fr. S____________,

I write to you to respond to comments made in your homily given on the weekend of ____________, which I believe reflect neither Scripture nor Catholic tradition.  Because your homily was such a substantial departure from any recognized Christian principle, I felt it necessary to take this extraordinary step.

Your homily focused on these words of St. Paul to his companion, Timothy:  “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”  I Timothy 2:1-2.[1]  You spoke about about the virtue of a “quiet and tranquil life.”

I might quibble with you over the merit of a “quiet life” in a free democracy – whose quality and character depend on an active and engaged electorate – as opposed to what we might reasonably expect from a small dissident sect trying to survive under an autocratic foreign rule.  But my more serious objection is to the final comments made in your homily – remarks that were beside the point as far as I could tell – namely, your criticism of government programs designed to improve peoples’ lives.

As I recall, you said that these programs “crowd out” quiet efforts of individuals to care for family, neighbors and co-workers.  You said that government programs provide care impersonally from a great distance by people unfamiliar with the local situation.  You used the example of a parent facing the need to pick up his or her child from school, and pointed out that another family member, a neighbor or a co-worker would do a much better job providing help in this instance than some nameless bureaucrat in Washington. 

The impression you left us with was clear:  all government efforts to aid its distressed citizens were not only ineffective, but at times harmful and at least marginally immoral, and were motivated by politicians’ desire for self-aggrandizement rather than any genuine concern for those in need.

I believe that much of your characterization of government programs was wrong on the facts but more importantly for our purposes your broad-based attack on government social programs is not consistent with either the Gospels or Catholic teaching.

Jesus makes it clear that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Matthew 25:40.  That seems to include pretty much everything.  Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus suggest that he endorses only small-scale action on behalf of those in need.  And the Church recognizes this.  As early as 1919, American Catholic bishops called for government involvement in establishing a social safety net following World War I:  “The state should make comprehensive provision for insurance against illness, invalidity, unemployment and old age.”  Program of Social Reconstruction, U.S. Bishops, February 12, 1919. 

In particular, the American bishops have endorsed national health insurance and social security.  In their pastoral letter on Health and Health Care of November 19, 1981, the bishops called for an adequately funded national health insurance program for all Americans:

Following on these principles and on our belief in health care as a basic human right, we call for the development of a national health insurance program. It is the responsibility of the federal government to establish a comprehensive health care system that will ensure a basic level of health care for all Americans. The federal government should also ensure adequate funding for this basic level of care through a national health insurance program.

The bishops’ commitment to a national health care policy was again reiterated in “A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: Protecting Human Life, Promoting Human Dignity, Pursuing the Common Good,” June 18, 1993:  “For three quarters of a century, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for national action to assure decent health care for all Americans.” 

The U.S. bishops have also unequivocally endorsed national social security, and “strongly urge[d] all Catholics to support and participate in the Social Security System,” concluding that “we believe that the Social Security System in the United States is a program that is vital to the protection of human dignity for millions of Americans.”  1983 Statement on Social Security.  This commitment to social security was reiterated in “A Commitment to All Generations: Social Security and the Common Good” published in 1999.

While these statements hardly exhaust Catholic thinking on the role of government in society, I believe that they are sufficient to show that your views do not reflect the historic Church position.  Clearly, under the teaching of the bishops, government has an important role in providing for the welfare for its citizens.  Your wholesale rejection of this role, then, amounts to teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.  In my view, it is a serious abuse of priestly authority to squander the few precious minutes allotted for a homily – the only opportunity in the entire week that most members of the congregation will have to hear the Gospel message amid the clamor of the world – hawking your own personal political views.

Beyond its inconsistency with basic Christian tenets, your narrow ideological position ignores both the nature of social problems and the services government provides.  Unlike your universal condemnation of government efforts to provide care for its citizens, I don’t suggest that a government solution is always and everywhere the best solution.  But when the problem is national, such as widespread poverty among the elderly or the growing crisis in health care, a national response is warranted.  Individuals, even with the best of intentions, are no more equipped to solve these problems on their own than they would be to repel the invasion of a modern, mechanized army.  I agree that I would not ask someone in the welfare department to pick up my child from school; but neither would I request my neighbor or co-worker to put out the fire if my home were in flames.  A trained, properly equipped and publicly funded city fire department would no doubt do a better job.

Some time ago, my father-in-law died after an extended illness. As his last days approached, arrangements were made for Hospice care.  The Hospice workers came to his home, bathed him, changed his bedclothes, made him comfortable and kept him as free from pain as possible.  They were able to help in ways that my mother-in-law was unable to do both physically and emotionally.  They visited almost every day, and became intimately involved in the rhythms of the household.  They not only brought comfort and dignity to my father-in-law in his last days but also provided enormous support to both my mother-in-law and my wife.  Through perhaps an act of Providence, the Hospice workers happened to stop by the house within minutes of my father-in-law’s death and, as a final kindness, helped the family through that most difficult time.  The cost of this Hospice care was covered to the last penny by the United States government though Medicare.

I suspect that you do not share this belief, but it is my conviction that on the Last Day, when all accounts are settled, credit will no doubt be accorded the American people for their resolve carried out through duly elected representatives to allot a generous portion of their own resources, not only to care for the people like my father-in-law in their last hours, but also to aid countless other citizens who – with or without aid from family and neighbors – still require help to meet basic needs or obtain a hand up in difficult times.  It puzzles me that you cannot see the fundamental decency in this. 

An aside here that was not in the letter:  the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof expresses sentiments similar to Paul's when he is asked if there was a blessing for the Tsar:  “A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!”