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Oxford Internet governance Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that it’s time for data on the Internet to have a legally mandated expiration date. Do you agree?
The foundation of a humanist ethic is that it has to start from our best understanding of human nature and the human condition. The “human condition” is somewhat easier to describe than “human nature”, that complex thing which literature, psychology, philosophy and individual experience all struggle to understand. Whereas a study of history and a thoughtful reading of literature together offer abundant insights into the human condition, the sheer diversity in human nature makes the task of understanding it a work that could demand whole lifetimes as we seek to make sense of ourselves and others, especially the others we care about.
But the effort to understand human nature is itself constitutive of what makes a good and worthwhile life. It is easy to prove this: consider the opposite, namely, a life lived in carelessness and indifference towards the question of who we are and how we can best relate to others. What a waste that would be. In attempting to understand humanity we can expect to find that what motivates people is, too often, not very admirable and sometimes downright appalling. But this is not the majority story. In every village, town and city in the world, every minute of each day, there are millions of acts of ordinary co-operation, courtesy and kindness, and they constitute the majority of human interactions.
I’ve long argued that the study of philosophy can be a great help to people who are dealing with personal and mental issues, especially philosophies like Stoicism or Epicureanism. Indeed, I speak from experience when I say that it’s helped me with my own struggles. It appears I’m not the only one that has taken notice of this potential.
The Stuart Low Trust provides support and companionship to isolated people in north London – many have experience of mental illness. They put on a startling range of activities: live music and comedy, classes on drama and cookery, talks on history, astrophysics, chemistry and classical music. On Sunday afternoons the trust’s remarkable philosophy forum convenes. For the individuals taking part, philosophy is certainly not mere navel-gazing. The ancient questions – how should I live? what matters most? who should I be? – are live ones for them.
When Rachel Paine, a philosophy tutor who helped set up the forum, is the speaker, 30 people crowd themselves on to purple sofas to hear her. She’s talking about personal identity and the narrative conception of the self. “What makes you the person you are?” she asks.
The usual answers have something to do with continuity – your body or your memories make you the same you over time – but she’s asking about the control we have over who we are. The thought is that the self might be deliberately shaped when you choose actions in line with the narratives you have about the kind of life you want to live, the sort of person you want to be.
The main group splits into four seminars, each guided by a volunteer with a background in philosophy. There’s discussion of what happens when your narrative fails, when your story is thwarted by factors outside your control, and you can’t be who you want to be. Others consider the connection between a life’s narrative and social identity, how the thoughts of other people can sometimes shape us.
The seminars merge back together, and Paine sets out a different conception of the self. The new idea is that a person consists in many changing selves, strung along over time like pearls on a string. The seminars split off again, and there’s discussion of Hume’s bundle theory here and there. One asks what the string connecting the pearls is supposed to be. There’s a moment of baffled silence, smiles, and more conversation.
Today’s topic was metaphysics, but in the past year the forum has considered how fiction can move us, Kierkegaard’s three stages of life, theories of perceptual experience, distributive justice, liberty, ancient Greek philosophy, trolley problems, God, truth and much more.
What’s striking is the group’s openness to new ideas. “It’s not like a debate among academics,” a group leader, Aaron Finlay, tells me, “where people just take up established positions and butt heads.” There’s a real sense of people trying to get at the truth, trying to do philosophy with honesty.
Harry Adamson, a Cambridge PhD who helped set up the forum, says that philosophical questions can play a powerful role in the lives of people who have experienced mental health problems. “Their lives can throw up abstract and fundamental questions that many people drift through life leaving unexamined. Their experiences generate answers that are often novel, plausible and powerful, and as they’ve lived the questions, the answers they reach take on a different significance. Apart from all that, their thoughts are listened to here with an equality of respect, which I’m sad to say doesn’t always happen.”
While it’s definitely not therapy or self-help, the participants say they get a great deal from the discussions. For some the debates are simply good fun, others come along to hear new ideas and discover different perspectives, and still others enjoy the camaraderie. One said the forum has helped in other ways too. He’s “much more in the world now”, less shy, more likely to speak up. “It’s a privilege to hear these ideas,” he says.
The philosophy forum is one of those rare things that defy the laws of social physics. Everyone gets more out than they put in, particularly the volunteers. “It’s the best thing I do,” one tells me. “It’s the highlight of my week.” As I follow Paine down the hallway from one group to another, I tell her I planned to ask why she and the other volunteers give up so much of their time to do this. Having come along and listened in, I say that’s probably a stupid question. “I know,” she whispers. “It’s quite wonderful, isn’t it?”
Easy it is to see the faults of others.
Hard it is to see one’s own flaws.
We seek after others’ faults like filtering even pure water,
but we cover up our own flaws like a gambler hides his cards.
Shakyamuni Buddha, The Dhammapada (via tharfagreinir)
When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me — it still sometimes happens — and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl.
But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous — not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance…That pure chance could be so generous and so kind…That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time…That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me & it’s much more meaningful…
The way he treated me & the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other & our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.
Ann Druyan, on her husband, Carl Sagan.
- How do you know what is real and what isn’t? How can you tell if you are or are not delusional?
- How do you decide between faith and reason? If you think one is better than the other, why is it better?
- How do you make choices in your life? How do you know what is best for you?
- What does it…
Needless to say, philosophy makes life — and discussions with one’s peers — far more interesting.
Throughout life, we constantly narrate, or commentate on, everything we do, say, see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. As natural storytellers, we continuously keep the plot moving forward, sometimes missing millions of subplots that are developing on their own. It is like taking a sip of wine and saying, “It’s a bit dry; it has definitely aged well, but I can taste the bark. I’ve had better.” Instead of simply experiencing the joy and flavors of the wine, we are analyzing the flavor, trying to break it down and fit it into a context and language we already know. In doing this, we miss out on much of the actual experience.
Miguel Ruiz, Are You Using Knowledge, or Is Knowledge Using You?
Professor Hunter Rawlings III, President Emeritus of Cornell University, explores the origins of the American idea of freedom. He explains that it arose from two conflicting schools of thought: the ancient Greek strand, which valued communal society over the individual, and the Enlightenment, which prioritized individual freedom.
He discusses how these ideas influenced the founding of America and how they continue to shape modern American society. - Chautauqua Institution
Hunter Ripley Rawlings III (born 1945) is an American classics scholar and academic administrator.
He is best known for serving as the 10th president of Cornell University from 1995 until 2003. Currently, he serves a professor of classical history in Cornell’s Department of History and Department of Classics.
For this experiment, try to purge your mind of any preconceptions, as much as you can. And try, literally, to answer the questions to yourself as you read. Take time. This isn’t meant to be read quickly. Think about each sentence before proceeding.
Now, I ask: If you…