Archive for the ‘Purpose’ Category

The Philosophy of Success - Mark Twain As Antithesis

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

Last week I had my first introduction to the layered world views of Buddhism. Apparently there are six of them, each one introducing a little more more enlightenment than the one before.  Those aspiring to inner peace can ease themselves along the way by meditating on each worldview in turn and practicing its lessons in everyday life.

I got to hear the first two during a yoga class Dharma talk. I apologize to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike if I’m paraphrasing poorly:

Worldview one: Everything changes, or nothing stays the same.

Worldview two: The present moment is what it is and we can do nothing to change it. (Although how we respond to the present moment affects the next moment and the next.)

If something can immediately start to be dwelled upon I immediately began to dwell upon the practice of these worldviews. They seemed to have something to say about every frustration or concern traveling through my mind at the time and about every tricky situation I encountered from that point forward.

I was anxious, for instance, about the ongoing process of approvals at the New York City Department of Buildings (for our renovation) — the Buddhist worldviews helped me realize that I could not change the delays and hurdles, but that they would change with time. My daughter failed her chemistry regents and had to sign up for summer school — I was able to reassure her that this was not the end of the world, as it might seem, but just a modification to her plans for the summer, and a chance to get to learn a bit more about chemistry. And the England soccer team were knocked out of the World Cup after playing several lackluster games of soccer — a mediocre performance for my home country’s national squad; something of a tradition of late.

But while watching a PBS documentary about Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens as he was born) I realized that not only frustrations and hurdles but successes and satisfactions are fleeting and illusory.

Mark Twain’s life story provides a template through which to understand the weaknesses of the capitalist, consumerist worldview that we generally find ourselves stuck in: The perceived rightness of our aspiration for wealth, power, leisure, fame.

Twain denounced and reviled at these aspirations through his words but sought them endlessly in his deeds. He was not a hypocrite, I think, but a man conflicted, unable to reconcile his pleasure in material success and its trappings with his philosophical wisdom about the ultimate futility of striving mercilessly to fix anything that would inevitably change.

He made a fortune, built a beautiful home, surrounded himself with his loving and beloved family, and in the process set the seeds for losing it all (by financial overreaching).

The first two Buddhist worldviews teach us that not only must we practice acceptance and humility in failure and frustration, but also in success and satisfaction. Once I have succeeded in surmounting the feudal bureaucracy of the NYC DOB I will become a landlord and a homeowner with all of the challenges and hurdles that will bring. Once my daughter has passed her chemistry regents she’ll be focused on getting into college. Once England has a successful soccer team again… OK, if England ever has a successful soccer team again its successes won’t last forever (that privilege is reserved for Brazil).

Mississippi Steamboats

Mississippi Steamboats

Near the beginning of the PBS Mark Twain documentary we learn that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) started his adult life working on steamboats up and down the Mississippi river. He loved it. He was diligent. He worked his way up to the position of pilot. He earned more than the president. Each day on the river opened up new worlds for him and he never tired of the 1200 mile weeks-long trip ferrying passengers and cargo. It was all he wanted to do. Life on the river was like living a dream.

After 12 years on the river the civil war intervened and Twain was forced to move on for a while. He never went back. The rest of his life was full of ultimately frustrated striving.

Twain’s life can be viewed as the mirror image of Siddhartha’s life. Twain started from humble origins, achieved great satisfaction and happiness as a young man traveling up and down the river, but left that behind for a later life of fruitless searching for happiness in wealth, fame and comfort. Siddhartha began with wealth and comfort and moved on to strive for happiness and satisfaction, finding it as a ferry pilot on the river.

If only we could reach back in time and introduce Twain to the first two worldviews of Buddhism.

Serious Souls: The Philosophy of Purpose

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen

A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen

In A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen give us a movie that refuses to be chewed, never mind digested. This is intended to be a compliment. A Serious Man has the substance of gristle. After gnashing on it for a while we try to remove it for inspection, hoping that nobody notices that we’ve bitten off something we can’t masticate.

Perhaps this impenetrability is the point. What could be more true to life than a work of art that defies explanation. Do the Coen brothers understand A Serious Man? I don’t know. Do they have theories? Perhaps. Are these theories exhaustive? Who knows.

The protagonist in A Serious Man, a middle-aged, married college professor up for tenure, starts looking for an answer, a solution, as the life he thinks he has begins to crumble. His pathetic fate, as far as we can tell, is both at once entirely his own fault and entirely unavoidable. In the Coen brothers’ universe being good, being serious provides no defense against catastrophe. And so it is in the real universe.

Thus are we thrust us headfirst into a contemplation of the philosophy of purpose as if into an oven.

We elected Barack Obama because he is a serious man, a man with a purpose. His purpose is to make things better for America and for the world we live in. (Many people would dispute this, I’m sure. But I’m not writing for those people, so that doesn’t matter. If you agree with me, you know what I mean.) We were sick of being presided over by a bunch of people with other purposes at heart, purposes less altruistic and noble.

As the Coen brothers wryly point out, having a purpose is no protection against the universe. As we have seen over the past year Obama’s purpose in all its forms has been undermined, denigrated, thwarted, and diminished at every turn.

But does this mean that there is no substance to purpose? Does the universal irony of inevitable failure, disintegration, and death mean that having a purpose has no purpose?

Cold Souls - Paul G And A Soul

Cold Souls - Paul G And A Soul

To answer that question I turn to another interesting movie I saw recently - Cold Souls. In Cold Souls those burdened by a heavy, angst-ridden soul can have it removed. Life without a soul, it turns out, becomes much lighter and more fun for some. What use is a soul if we only suffer it? The movie asks. But as Paul Giamatti discovers, he misses his soul, he misses the ballast of that inner weight.

And there is the answer, lying like a penny on the sidewalk, waiting to see whether it will be picked up. If we have a purpose, if we perceive a meaning, then this perception has substance. Refuting or ignoring that purpose and meaning denies the substance.

By analogy, physicists have shown that the apparently solid matter that fills the universe is not as solid as it seems. Not only is all material substance made up of tiny particles that are mostly empty space, but the tiniest components of matter present themselves as waves of electromechanical energy when we try to pin them down in space.

And yet to deny that the material world has practical substance would be to deny all of the information of our senses.

Matter is an illusion, but it is a meaningful, reliable illusion, one which shapes and defines our physical experience of our lives.

Having a purpose is the existential equivalent. Demonstrably irrelevant and illusory until we accept that it shapes and defines our spiritual or psychological purpose. This goes beyond cognitive dissonance. Denying purpose is as real as perceiving a mathematical absolute only to try to disprove it.

More On Happy Go Lucky

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

As I posted yesterday’s philosophical insight inspired by the film “Happy Go Lucky” I felt as if the post didn’t quite express my full thought but I didn’t quite know what more to say. As I lay waiting for my son to wake up this morning — those indeterminate minutes as the day goes from black to gray — I realized what it was that I hadn’t said.

Kant recognized and asserted that we only know existence at arm’s length, through our experience of it. Schopenhauer underscored, vaunted, and elaborated on this point through several hundred pages. It’s been refined and narrowed since. Our minds create an impression of existence through the evidence of our senses. We don’t know sunlight, for instance, we know the mind’s recreation of sunlight through the stimulation of our optic nerve.

I left off yesterday with the thought that life is, to some extent, what we make of it. We can choose a negative, pessimistic interpretation or a positive, optimistic interpretation.

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh

The operation of the mind connects these two thoughts: The mind not only forms an impression of existence, but applies a set of psychological rules to determine how we feel about that impression.

Someone steals Poppy’s bike. Poppy’s mind applies a rule set that interprets this incident without anger and with a light, bittersweet sense of regret.

In contrast the driving instructor interprets Poppy’s attempts at humor as an attack on him, a game she’s playing to undermine him.

So, Mike Leigh’s film informs us, and is right in doing so, that our senses don’t give us a reliable impression of existence. Our minds apply a complex psychological interpretation to the direct evidence of our senses. And it could be said that only without a psychological rule set, or only with a completely neutral psychological rule set, could we get a somewhat untainted impression of existence.

The constraints of a blog post don’t permit further exploration of this idea. But it promises to be a very rich vein to hack away at. I’ll end with the thought I had just as my son was waking up: Quite apart from our psychological disposition, the rules encoded in the nature of our existence (in our DNA) provide yet another impression of existence that is just as important, if not more important, than the evidence of our senses in yielding an impression of existence.

Happy Go Lucky

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Sally Hawkins in Mike Leighs Happy Go Lucky

Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky

If you haven’t seen the new Mike Leigh film “Happy Go Lucky” don’t read this blog post, go out and see the movie. Also, if you haven’t seen Charlie Kaufmann’s “Synechdoche” go out and see that, too. I’d recommend seeing the Kaufmann film before the Leigh film.

In any case, Happy Go Lucky, for me at least, raised an interesting philosophical question. It also acts as a good foil for Kaufmann’s somewhat bleaker statement about life’s ultimate futility.

As I was watching Happy Go Lucky I found myself remembering feelings evoked by some of Leigh’s earlier movies. The driving instructor spewing vehement, paranoid rancor reminds me of the vehement, paranoid character in Naked, for instance. But Leigh’s dramatic point of view has broadened and shifted, well, dramatically, over the years. Once roiling with seething, unremitting anger and misery, his preferred outlook in Happy Go Lucky is decidedly positive.

Leigh’s embrace of the positive fascinates me philosophically because it doesn’t exclude the negative.

Sally Hawkins’ character, Poppy, chooses to remain happy, positive and joyous in the face of misery, anger, and negativity. She doesn’t ignore life’s hardships, she allows them in, tries to work with them. In fact, she seeks them out, stays with them. Again and again we see Poppy engaging with troubled characters, trying to coax them out of their dark shells, or to shed some light in there.

Life is, to some extent, how we look at it, Leigh says. Someone steals our bike; do we let it ruin our day, or do we express a little mischievous regret that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye?

Abandoned Warehouse

Abandoned Warehouse

Bad things happen to people through no fault of their own, of course. Terrible things. Things that can’t be recovered from. But there’s no harm in trying to shed light, to help people, as Poppy’s character points out. And many of us allow ourselves to be unhappy about things that aren’t really terrible or unrecoverable.

Kaufmann reminds us that each moment is infinitessimally brief, unrecoverable, irrelevant. Leigh gently counters that each moment is enormous, inescapable, and joyous.

Barack Obama President Elect

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

UN Ambassador Andrew Young

UN Ambassador Andrew Young

I am sure that many have cried at some point since 11pm last night. My own tears caught me by surprise. I was emptying the dishwasher this morning as I listened to NPR. Ambassador Andrew Young, the first black ambassador to the UN, (who witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr) was speaking in calm, measured praise of Obama and the weight of the history of Obama’s accomplishment. I’m not black, but in the upsurge of emotion that brought my tears I felt suddenly, immediately aware of what this moment meant historically in a country with such a poor record of racial discrimination, both overt and covert — it was a mixture of relief and joy.

This joy is in part the very pure philosophical joy of a good thing happening, a thing that will change the future. In Andrew Young’s words: “a victory of grace over greed, of vision over violence.”

Can change really happen and if so how?  This is the country that twice elected George W. Bush. Many who voted-in perhaps the worst president in the nation’s history, twice, must have decided to vote for Obama over McCain. So are we a conservative nation simply disillusioned by a lousy president, or are we a nation newly and differently inspired, a changed nation?

Barack Obama Victor

Barack Obama Victor

I can’t know the answer. I can only give an opinion based on what I see and hear.  Obama and his campaign team have wrought change by reaching out and engaging people with new ideas. These ideas have rubbed up against old, automated, reactive ways of thinking. Obama has spent the last couple of years asking people why we should see the intractable problems of the country as hopelessly intractable. He’s also stood and overtly and covertly challenged people to find him wanting because of the color of his skin, or the unamericanness of his name, or the power of his rational intellect.

Many failed to meet this challenge. After all 47% of America voted for McCain, or against Obama. That’s tens of millions of people who have proven themselves insusceptible to a force for powerful, positive change.

The world is now a different place. Obama’s skill and insight in his campaign promise great things for his presidency. Thank you, Barack.

McCain, Obama And The Philosophy of Lies

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil,” Socrates

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a lie is 1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true, or 2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression. This, ironically, makes lies a lot more concrete than the truth, philosophically speaking, which is a much harder quantity to pin down.

McCain Campaign Lies

McCain Campaign Lies

Why has John McCain, the self-annointed “straight talker,” resorted to lying? It’s a simple question and one that’s impossible to answer without some inside information. But if we’re to have any hope of understanding McCain and guessing his future actions it’s worth trying to figure it out.

If you’re interested in knowing what McCain is accused of lying about, the Democratic Party has established “Count the Lies” a chronicle of “independent, nonpartisan” fact checks “debunking John McCain’s lies and distortions.” Even some conservatives have tutted at McCain’s recent stoops. Even Karl Rove (!!), as reported in the Christian Science Monitor, of all places, has said that “McCain has gone, in some of his ads, similarly one step too far in sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100 percent truth test.” If you’re a Republican presidential candidate and Karl Rove is accusing you of distorting the truth, you know you’re a big fat liar… or a pawn in another one of Rove’s despicable schemes.

John McCain with President Bush

John McCain with President Bush

(This is a bit of a digression, but the Salon published a very interesting piece back in January asking why in all of the election coverage of John McCain’s losing primary bid in 2000 no journalist had mentioned who it was that smeared John McCain so successfully that he lost. The answer, of course, George Bush and Karl Rove…)

Perhaps we can find in our children the unadulterated origin of the impulse to lie. My son, now 4-years old, has just begun to lie. His reasons are transparent: He lies either to get something he wants (usually cookies, candy, or toys), or to avoid something he doesn’t want (typically to take responsibility for a transgression). McCain’s lies seem to fall squarely in the first category. As a “maverick, outsider” it suited him to talk straight. But as an establishment insider, it’s much more effective for him to lie. He’s always wanted power and success, and now that lying seems to offer the best path to victory, he’s adopted it with the same zeal he once reserved for honesty. The tactic is all the more successful because, in Obama, he seems to be up against a candidate who has some genuine integrity — a terrible handicap against smear tactics.

What does this tell us about the kind of president McCain would make?

Politicians the world over resort to lies, many of them relatively successful leaders. Lying in itself isn’t a guarantee of poor government and lousy leadership. Although Bush has overused and abused this privilege, the security of a country, for instance, relies to some extent on the ability of its government to keep secrets from its enemies, which also means keeping secrets from its people.

In order to understand the degree of concern we should have about McCain’s lies, we really need to consider what his goals will be as president. We can then assume that he will lie to achieve them.

And given that McCain has dropped most if not all of his firmly held political beliefs in order to gain the highest office, one can only assume that his primary goal as president will be to consolidate his power and popularity — in other words, he’ll lie in order to keep the conservative political base as happy as possible. That’s a scary thought.

Footnote - What about Palin?

What about Palin? She’s a big fat liar, too, and a scary character in her own right. The Times has an extensive piece on her political MO. Not a pretty picture. Here’s a quote from Laura Chase who was Palin’s campaign manager during her first bid for mayor:

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she says, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

Related posts from around the web:

McCain Lies Again - But McCain is still airing ads telling the same lie. He has also still not retracted his lie on The View when he point blank said that Palin has refused all earmarks as governor. I cannot remember a candidate for president telling such …

Romney: McCain Lies - So Rove has declared McCain’s campaign overly harsh and Romney has declared it deceitful. I honestly have no idea how that sort of criticism from those people is possible to recover from.

Obama Campaign Launches Ad Hitting McCain’s Lies As “Dishonorable” - We’ve been waiting for it, and here it is: The Obama campaign launches its first ad hitting McCain for his lying and his mendacious adver-sleazements and slamming his campaign as “disgraceful” and “dishonorable”: …

McCain Lies About Obama’s Health Plan- JUST THE FACTS! - In our ongoing efforts to expose Senator McCain’s lies about Senator Obama’s policies, we need to look at the McCain campaigns lies and then provide some “straight talk” about the facts. McCain claimed that Obama’s health care plan …

Small Town Values And The Political Ruin of America

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

John McCain on The Daily Show with John Stewart

John McCain on The Daily Show with John Stewart

Last night, as I watched a TiVo’d John Stewart skewering delegates on the last day of the Republican convention, I wondered what it is about small town values that the Republicans love (but can’t define) and that seems to keep America stuck in the mire of bad politics.

If you didn’t see it, Stewart’s convention crew walked around with microphones asking Republican delegates what ’small town values’ meant to them. With big smiles on their faces and earnest willingness to answer the delegates came up with such laughable answers as “real people, real values,” “traditional marriage,” “fishing,” “church.” (The video is posted on the Daily Show website - highly recommended.)

But even those of us who distrust and disagree with the sentiment with which republicans freight the term, we all seem to understand that the essence of ’small town values’ might mean something genuinely appealing and good. So what is this essence, and how has it become distorted and misused.

Block Island, Rhode Island

Block Island, Rhode Island

I spent the bulk of the summer on Block Island with my family. Block Island is essentially a small town with a lot of tourists. (And these are mostly east-coast tourists from New York and Connecticut.) It’s easy to distinguish the tourists from the islanders. The tourists are in a hurry. They’re often nervous and rude. They lock their cars. They expect to get screwed over. They complain about stuff. The islanders understand that there aren’t that many places to go on the island, and everywhere is pretty close. You can trust people because for the most part, there’s nowhere for them to escape to. You couldn’t steal a car and get it off the island (which is car-accessible only by ferry.)

Block Island is a great lens through which to observe that the essence of small town values means enforced responsibility through enforced community.

It’s a lot easier to be rude or unfair to someone if you don’t know them and if you’ll never see them again and don’t have to rely upon their personal contribution to the community you live in. In a small town, people do know one another and rely upon one another and society functions very much as it has done for millions of years. The inherent rules of small social groups therefore tend to operate without the need for too much overt oversight and enforcement. What’s not to like about that?

But this is the problem: The rest of the country is made up of places where that kind of reinforcement can’t be relied upon. And this is the other part of the problem: Conservative Republicans wrap a whole lot of crap into the concept of small town values that has nothing to do with the core function of a mutually-reliant community (such as traditional marriage, fishing and church.)

And this is why ’small town values’ have become the political ruin of America. So much hog-swill passes for the reasonable subject of informed debate under the auspices of what small town folk care about. Every Republican candidate dives in or gets sucked in to the vortex of endless political distraction of the conservative agenda. And this means the every Democratic candidate gets sucked in, too, for fear of committing political suicide.

Other advanced Western nations don’t waste political time endlessly rehashing abortion statutes, gun control, separation of church and state, the teaching of creationism. ‘Small town values’ are the concrete boots of American politics, and until we lose them we won’t have an effective political process that will allow the nation to move forward and solve the very real problems of war, alternative fuel sources, and climate change.

Related Posts from Around the Web:

Small Town Values? I Gotz ‘Em - I’m from a small town in New Jersey, and I’m politically progressive in every possible way. Watch this clip from The Daily Show, in which people attending the Republican National Convention spoke about their views on small-town values. …

The Small-Town Values Palin Didn’t Mention - From The Seattle PI By John Kelso Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s touting of the wonders of small-town values in her acceptance speech reminded me of my ride in a red convertible a few weeks ago while serving as the …

Small Town Values? - You can’t cherry pick values. If you claim to be the party of small town values, you have to take the good and the bad.

Comebacks: Britney and Me

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On Sunday evening, my 15-year old daughter, typically guileless, made a bid to watch MTV’s video music awards. “No way,” was the answer, “You have school tomorrow.” (She’s in tenth grade, and supposed to be making a strong start in a new school.) “But we watched it last year,” she replied, “Remember we saw Britney Spears…”

This sent me to the computer because I knew I’d blogged about Britney’s woeful performance at last year’s VMAs. With the help of the blog and my wife’s clam-like mind we recalled that we’d TiVo’d Britney’s debacle instead of watching it live. All of which is to say that my daughter went to bed on time and that this is a blog post about comebacks.

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

I’m back from the time vortex of school vacation. It feels strange to be blogging again. Having been out of the mix for a few weeks, I’m afraid that I’ve lost something or that some essential capacity has become stunted. The “me” of then seems more capable than the “me” of now. I feel a little bit like I imagine Charles Austin feels. Austin won the gold medal for the high jump at the Atlanta Olympics. When we couldn’t watch the VMAs last night (alas, our TiVo attempt this year resulted in two and a half hours of silent gray screen; don’t ask me how that happened) we watched a TiVo’d Austin trying to break the world high jump record for a 40-year old on the David Letterman show. We were all rooting for him as his shirt tipped the bar off its stays. “Tuck your shirt in!” I shouted at the screen.

Britney apparently made a successful return to popstardom on Sunday night, winning three awards. And while I cared momentarily about Austin’s high jump attempt, the objective distance I have about Britney’s success or failure as a pop star (I could care less) allows me to burrow in to the philosophical aspects of success and redemption.

Put simply, in and of itself it ultimately doesn’t matter whether we succeed or fail, whether we make a successful comeback or not. If Austin had broken the high jump record for a 40-year old, someone eventually would have outjumped him, or not. Austin will eventually pass on and those who know him will pass on. Britney will stop making music videos. And this blog post will get archived off to tape, never to be read again.

Ambitions, successes, failures, comebacks are all idealized narratives that we create or consume to accompany events that fill time. They exist in conceptual space, but not as real objects. The most obvious example of a counter-narrative is this: If someone prevails in a competition, others must lose. Letterman asked Austin about his three Olympic bids — gold in one, and what about the other two? “Not so good.” Not so good for Austin, but great for the guys who won golds in those competitions, and not so good for the other competitors the time Austin won.

This perspective can have a very freeing impact. Today I can sit down and write what I want to write because ultimately it won’t matter what I write. And even today right now it doesn’t matter.

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

But inner and outer narratives often keep us going. More so it seems in modern life we care about the narrative of life and experience life less in itself and more in the abstract. Which brings us back to Socrates, and, for once, it brings me strangely into apparent opposition with Socrates, who said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

However, onto this I would like to paste the narrative that Socrates had in mind the kind of reflection that brings us deeper into reality rather than further from it…

Solving Problems - Where There’s Smoke There’s Cash And Mirrors

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Billionaires stubbing out smoking, brains logging on to solve problems, and mirrors as healing devices.

“I bid him look into the lives of men as though into a mirror, and from others to take an example for himself.”

- Terence

Roman comic dramatist (185 BC - 159 BC)

philosophy blog: mike bloomberg bill gates anti-smokingBusinessman, philanthropist, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been joined by Bill and Melinda Gates in his $500M anti-smoking campaign fund. This may not seem like a whole lot of money when compared to the billions that cigarette companies make selling cigarettes around the world, but it dwarfs the WHO estimate of $20M per year currently being spent to combat smoking in low to middle income countries. The fund is expected to save hundreds of millions of lives over the next couple of generations. Yet another reason to shake our heads over the spending priorities of our elected administration (such as the decision to airlift $12B cash into Iraq without keeping track of where it all went…)

Pinky Dinky Doo

Pinky Dinky Doo

Not yet a potential target of big tobacco, my four-year old son fortunately wouldn’t know the Marlboro man if he rode in on his horse. One of my son’s favorite shows of the moment is Noggin’s Pinky Dinky Doo (parents take note — no ads on Noggin!!) Pinky, the show’s heroine, engages her little brother, Tyler, with stories related to a problem he’s encountering. At some point in every story, Pinky’s fictional self “thinks big” in order to solve a problem. Thinking big means thinking laterally, or outside the box. Very entertaining. And now I read that there’s a whole network of Pinkies (not to be confused with pinkoes) who can sign up to compete to solve problems and win cash prizes. “InnoCentive,” reports the Times, has “solved 250 challenges, for prizes typically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (www.innocentive.com), the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method of preventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.” Cool.

Philosophy blog: elephant looking in mirror self reflection medical benefitsAnd all of this relates to mirrors how? I’m getting there.

It’s a little all over the place and fluffy, but Natalie Angiers piece on mirrors has some interesting moments. (I scurried off to research her claims about mirror images, thinking she’d got something wrong, but for the moment I have to admit she’s right and I’m feeling a little chagrined.) Here are the pertinent nuggets:

1. Scientists have been “applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.” Wow!

2. “Subjects … in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. … people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion. ‘When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,’ Dr. Bodenhausen said. ‘A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.’ Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection.”

smoker in mirror anti-smoking bloomberg gates fundSo if I imagine for a moment that I’m Pinky Dinky Doo and that Mike Bloomberg is offering a prize for the person who can come up with a device that would help people quit smoking, I’d say that he should use some of the fund to distribute hand mirrors to smokers or their loved ones so that they can watch themselves puffing away day and night and hacking up gunk first thing in the morning. Just an idea.

(I would say that he should send a big old mirror to George Bush, but the researchers have also found that not all conscious animals recognize themselves in their reflection. “‘Tellingly,’ said Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has studied mirror self-recognition in elephants and dolphins, ‘animals raised in [or preferring?] isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.’”)

Related posts from around the web…

Gates, Bloomberg pool riches to fight smoking - Microsoft founder Bill Gates, left, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg walk on stage to announce their $375 million global anti-smoking campaign at a press conference in New York, Wednesday, July 23, 2008. …

What does an elephant see when it looks in the mirror? - But on further inspection it is thought that they may realise they are seeing themselves as they will repeatedly touch a mark painted on their heads which they wouldn’t be able to see if it were not for the mirror. …

New Yorker, Obama: A Second Bite

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Jean Cocteau“Art is science made clear.”

- Jean Cocteau

“your head gonna make a dead end on your street”

- Velvet Underground (White Light / White Heat)

Yesterday’s post left me with a disquieting murmur in the back of my mind. ‘Too easy,’ it muttered. And here comes Jean Cocteau to remind me that art is science made clear.

Can we criticize the New Yorker and Barry Blitt on social or political (or sociopolitical) terms for portraying the Obamas as a Muslim and a terrorist in the White House? No. Can we criticize them on artistic terms? Perhaps…

Decrying Blitt’s cartoon as tasteless and offensive doesn’t mean it’s not satirically funny; instead, it lends the cartoon a couple of the stock credentials of satirical humor.

Philosophy Blog: Barack Michelle Obama New Yorker Blitt Barry cartoon cover terrorits Osama Bin Laden White House American flag burning fireplaceTo understand the failure of the cartoon one must look to Cocteau: ‘art is science made clear,’ he insists. Considering the New Yorker’s high standards, does the cartoon make clear the science it satirizes?

Yes, and  no.

Yes, it parodies the ridiculous public fears and scurrilous Foxian paranoia about the Obamas as anti-American sleepers.  The New Yorker satisfactorily defends each subversive element of the cartoon (the Muslim garb, the gun belt, the burning flag) as a reinforcement of its plain and simple satirical intent — to explode the damp squib of right wing racism.

But… and here Cocteau helps enormously, it isn’t necessarily funny, because, despite all of these well placed clues, it isn’t made clear.

The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. I love to read it.  I’ve often said that I could be happy reading the New Yorker and nothing else.  (Not strictly true, but it has some damn fine writing.) It’s also, despite the wry, dry, sprightly daggers of its prose, an essentially sensitive publication. It skewers the bad guys. While for the good guys it reserves a blunted point.

Philosophy blog: New Yorker cover cartoon Obama Blitt Barry Barack Michelle terroristsI worked so hard yesterday to repress this awareness. I wanted to laud the New Yorker and Barry Blitt. But as I scrolled through the New Yorker cover cartoons seeking out examples of the same kind of abrasive satire I knew deep down that I wouldn’t find anything quite like the Obama cover.

We see Ahmadinejad being being enticed to a game of footsy in the bathroom stall, Bush as a housemaid standing over a cigar-smoking Cheney, the neocons up to their necks in a muddy flood… Jubilant snickers at the expense of the bad guys.

But with the Obama cartoon, those at whom we would snicker are absent.  If we laugh at the cartoon, we don’t laugh with the Obamas and we can’t laugh at them.  The objects of our laughter, the conservative commentators and our narrow-minded neighbors, don’t even make the frame.  They’re nowhere but in the dim recess of the cartoonist’s mind’s eye.  Considered from this perspective, the cartoon veers toward the tragic. The victims take center stage.  But clearly the cartoon cannot be tragic if the supposed victims don’t know it. The Obama’s expressions betray satisfaction and mischievous glee.

Philosophy blog: Lou Reed guitar Velvet UndergroundIf the New Yorker in its cover cartoon had, as does the Onion in its copy, a history of satirical lampoon with no holds barred, the cartoon would make more sense; its art would be science made clear. But given the absence of this history, the cartoon’s immediate psychological impact tends to muddy its message.

Not that any of this matters in practical terms. The tiny fraction of the population who even read the New Yorker and would pay any attention to what it has to say aren’t inclined to think that the Obamas might be terrorists, no matter what cartoon it runs on the cover.

A couple more for Barry Blitt, with sympathy and respect…

“The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.”

- Jean Cocteau

“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown,”

- Lou Reed

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