Cussin’ In The Classroom

Of late, I’ve noticed that I have begun using more profanity in the classroom than I ever have previously in my teaching career. (Strictly speaking, I do not ‘use’ more profanity; I ‘mention’ it. That is, rather than using the word ‘fuck’ in a sentence like “This is a fucking crazy argument,” I mention it as in ‘Then someone might say, “Look, fuck it, I’m not going to obey the law.’ In the first case, I have used the word ‘fuck’ myself; in the second, I have quoted someone using it.) I do not exactly know why this is the case. For the first dozen or so years of my teaching career, I studiously eschewed mentioning profanity in the classroom; my style of teaching saw me stick pretty close to the assigned reading and the written notes I had prepared on it. Of late, my teaching has become more unstructured; I rely less on notes and more on the text (and on student responses to it); I consider most of the teaching in the classroom to happen when my students and I build on the textual material to explore applications of it in our daily lives. I supply more examples to my students now, and spend considerable time making them as elaborate as they need to be in order to illustrate the point I am trying to get across. I’m also more comfortable now in my skin as a teacher, more confident about the material I teach (even as many new existential doubts have also crept into my self-assessments of my intellectual and pedagogical worth.) These changes have, over a period of time, resulted in–when things are going well–a more informal classroom space.

This ‘loosening up’ has, I suspect, also loosened my tongue somewhat. I do not mind the tangents I go off on; I’m more inclined to be facetious in class, to invoke levity into its proceedings. Some of my students have told me that they quite enjoy my historical asides, the stories I tell to supply some historical context to a particular philosophical debate; this has encouraged me to be more discursive in my working through the material being discussed in a class. And so, I have found that often times, when constructing some imaginary conversation for an example, to illustrate some political or ethical issue, I will throw some profanity into the mix to make the reported conversation more dramatic, more realistic. I hope.

My students do not seem to mind; no one ever looks shocked. Most students occasionally snicker; there is a noticeable relaxation in the classroom atmosphere. (For some strange reason, this is also the case whenever the topic at hand invokes the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.) I suspect that to a certain extent, my language humanizes me for my students–for better or worse. I’m ‘distant’ from my students in many ways–this language brings me ‘closer’ to them, again, for better or worse. I do not think that I’m currying favor with my students by employing this language; it has come naturally to me as my classroom methods of interacting with students have changed. For what it is worth, I curse a lot in my conversations outside the classroom, so I’m slipping into a mode of discourse that comes naturally to me. About fucking time.

That Alex Honnold MRI In ‘Free Solo’

One of the most commented on segments of Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarelyhi‘s ‘Free Solo‘–the film that details Alex Honnold‘s incredible free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park–is that of the MRI of Honnold’s brain. This MRI is performed in an attempt to solve the mystery of how Honnold is able to calmly scale a three thousand feet cliff without any ropes or aids, without apparently suffering the terror that would afflict most human beings engaged in any task that approximated Honnold’s feat. We learn that Honnold’s amygdala–the part of the brain supposedly activated by our fear–just doesn’t light up all that much in his case. See? He’s just built differently from us.

But we were also given some psychological insight, of course: Honnold himself is asked how he does it and he offers some interesting introspective takes on it on fear, risk, consequences, and existential choices; other climbers–like Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin–also chime in. And those around Honnold offer us some explanations of his behavior and attempt to determine its psychological foundations.

Such explanations do not satisfy all–especially those who find MRI scans more convincing than verbal reasons for human behavior:

Unfortunately, Free Solo suffers when Vasarhelyi and Chin psychologize Honnold or attempt to explain his drive for death-defying climbs. It’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to examine Honnold’s psyche, given that his Spock-like demeanor and curiously casual approach to soloing does raise certain questions about his mental stability or lack thereof. Yet every “answer” they ascribe to him (or he ascribes to himself) feels pat and unconvincing. Honnold mentions his father, who was emotionally unavailable to Honnold’s mother but also spurred his son’s interest in climbing. He describes his “dark soul” as a child and his “bottomless pit of self-loathing.” There’s some talk about being a loner in school. Yet none of those explanations are as persuasive as an MRI diagnosis that simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. Similarly, Free Solo’s fixation on how soloing affects Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend feels transported from a more banal film altogether. At best, this material is uninteresting filler, and at worst, it’s a distraction

Now, I hate to have to break the news but ‘pat psychologizing is what we do all the time, every single day of our lives. In fact, if we didn’t indulge in it, we wouldn’t know how to live with each other. Think about our language of everyday social, political, and ethical interaction–replete with wants, desires, beliefs, motivations, the whole gamut of psychological attitudes. We use this language all the time to predict and anticipate the reactions of others; we do not go around conducting MRIs to find out what our fellow humans want or desire or believe; we observe their behavior, we ask them questions, we correlate their behavior with their verbal pronouncements for further refinement and we muddle right along. In courts of law, when we want to know why someone did something, we ask them or other human beings to explain their behavior; we don’t cut open skulls or run scans to elicit reasons–though some neuroscientists want to do just that. All of which is to say that there is nothing ‘pat’ about the psychologizing in ‘Free Solo’; we make this assessment at the risk of being similarly dismissive of most of our daily conversation and our best tool for dealing with other humans.

But the attitudes expressed in the review above are not outliers. ‘Pop psychology,’ ‘psychobabble,’ ‘amateur psychologizing’–these are all apparently Bad Things; we should look for more Scientific Explanations. A laudable sentiment, but one which is too caught up in reductionist fantasies to be anything more than grossly misleading. In the realm of human behavior, psychological explanations are useful, elegant, and successful; and it is neuroscientific ones that have a long way to go:

The fundamental problem…is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris….It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

The urge to rely on neuroscientific explanations is easy to understand: human beings are complicated creatures; we are creatures of biology, culture, and psychology; to understand what makes us tick is hard.  Some pat neuroscientific explanations seem quite tempting. But what at cost? What, if anything, have we learned about Honnold from his MRI that is genuinely useful–especially since that MRI rests upon a series of as yet unconfirmed assumptions?  That ‘pat psychologizing’ that Honnold and those around him indulge in is far more enlightening; they place Honnold’s behavior in the domain of human relationships and motivations, far more comprehensible for us as human beings, and far more amenable to utilization in our future interactions with our fellow human beings.

Wittgenstein’s Lion And Solaris

Kris Kelvin, Snow, Gibrarian, and Sartorius are all puzzled and perplexed; as other educated and intelligent residents of Station Solaris–a sophisticated scientific laboratory–have been before them. They are stumped and bewildered by their interactions with the planet Solaris, with the ocean that covers its surface, the one that plays host to mimoids and symmetriads and asymmetriads and vertebrids extensors and fungoids and other strange and wondrous physical forms, which seems to be able to conjure up, out of its own chosen raw materials, facsimiles of the human form–like Kelvin’s former, dearly beloved, and now sadly departed love–that are good enough to induce genuine confusion about their identity on the part of those who would interact with them.

Does the ocean live, is it conscious, does it have a body or a mind? Is it intelligent? Is it communicating with human beings? Does it speak a language? Does it possess knowledge of mathematics or computation? Does the surface of the ocean on Solaris engage in computations; is that what the changes in its physical form signify?Are these human forms, the ones that look like the ones we love, are they forms of communication on the part of the planet? Has it scanned our brains, discovered our obsessions and physically realized them in an attempt to establish contact with us? Has it performed a series of vivisections on our brains and psyches, treating us flippantly like objects for experimentation–the way we have treated physical materials and other species on this planet?

The planet is, of course, Wittgenstein’s lion. It has spoken and we do not understand it. All that the scientists on Station Solaris can bring to bear on their interactions with the planet is their knowledge of themselves and other human beings–and their interactions with each other; this knowledge–of their particular ‘forms of life’–forces them into a particular interpretive stance with respect to the planet, one whose prisoners they remain, and which does not afford a unique and determinative understanding of what the nature of the planet is, and or what it might be trying to say–if it is trying to say anything in the first place. The planet has its own ‘form of life‘ that regulates and determines the form and content of its interactions with the human beings engaged with it; there is little guarantee that this communication is set up to enhance, or even make possible, understanding on the part of its human interlocutors.

Kelvin and Snow and Sartorius and Gibarian have come to realize that these concepts they trade in–life, mind, consciousness, thought, persons, intelligence, brain, language–find their meaning with respect to a particular form of life and being–they do not transcend it. They do not allow for the determination of whether the planet, a ‘being’ perhaps radically similar or dissimilar to them, traffics in similar concepts, or anything like them. If they were to ascribe a ‘life’ or a ‘mind’ to Solaris, it would be an asterisked one–‘life as we know it’–and perhaps that’s all we can or should aspire to.

America’s Next Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, Is A Lying, Rapey, Fratboy

I believe Christine Blasey Ford; I believe Brett Kavanaugh did precisely what she accuses him of doing. My reasons for offering this expression of my beliefs are quite simple: Brett Kavanaugh has done everything possible–especially during his ludicrous interview to Fox News yesterday–to indicate to me that he not only did what Ford alleges he did, but that this kind of behavior was par for the course for him and his drunken prep school buddies. (As various other testimonials about his rapey and drunken belligerent behavior on other occasions seem to confirm.) I’m not convicting Brett Kavanaugh in any legal domain and of course, were the Senate not to vote in favor his nomination, they would not be doing so either–they would merely be letting him continue in his present position at the  highly prestigious Federal Appeals Circuit as a judge; still, given these two sources of information available to me about what happened some thirty-six years ago, I’m inclined to find one of the pair named in my opening sentence above vastly more credible.

Ford, that is. Not the dude who looks like just about every other rich, privileged, self-satisfied, smug, drunken frat boy it has been my misfortune to either personally encounter or read about. There is a history to these matters, and in almost every single reckoning, dudes like Brett Kavanaugh are the guilty ones, yet almost always unpunished, and women like Ford, who have been assaulted or harassed, are forced to suffer further indignities. (Three women friends of mine have been raped; not one of them ever filed a report. Their rapists still walk free.)

Seeing isn’t believing. Most of the knowledge we claim about the world comes from testimony, written or otherwise. I know the sun is 93 million miles from the earth; reliable, authoritative, scientific sources tell me so. I know Napoleon came to power in 1799; reliable historical sources tell me so. Neither of these claims graduated to the status of knowledge via a courtroom; they went through ‘standard epistemic channels’: statement, corroboration (possibly via other testimonials), confirmation by taking actions based on the truth of these propositions, and so on. If we were to examine the corpus of our beliefs, we would find that the grounds we have for believing them are exceedingly varied; very few of them have been vetted by any kind of legal standard. There is no reason to hold, as many obfuscators would have us do, that the grounds for rejecting Kavanaugh’s nomination should be a ‘conviction’ by the standards of a criminal court. It should merely be enough that we find ourselves agnostic no longer, and inclined to believe one account. On which we could base our future actions. Like we do every single day of our lives. Context matters, yes, and this is a nomination process for the next Supreme Court Justice. But it is no more, and no less, than a highly dramatized job interview. There are no criminal penalties here. Our standards should be appropriately configured.

And when I do that, I find that I”m in a very familiar epistemic situation: on one side, a graduate of an institution–a fucking petri dish for toxic masculinity–that breeds and confirms privilege, which condones drunken behavior, imbued with a sense of entitlement, allegedly engaging in a species of behavior that is, by all historical and cultural accounts, very common to such places, and on the other side, a woman alleging an assault whose parameters sound very familiar, and who did not speak up for years because she feared precisely the reaction sent her way by the Republican Party.

The evidence is in: Brett Kavanaugh is a lying, rapey, fratboy.

HMS Ulysses And The Trolley Problem

I’m a professor of philosophy, and quite frequently, I teach classes on social and political philosophy and philosophy of law; the subject matters of these classes and their attendant discussions, very often stray, as they should, into ethical theory and its foundations. There, on numerous occasions, my students raise the The Trolley Problem and ask me what I think the ‘correct solution’ is. I’ve come up with a variety of responses over the years and have ‘settled’ on something like the following:

The Trolley Problem is not a problem or a puzzle to be solved. There is no solution per se. It is a mistake to ask anyone for their solution to it. The Trolley Problem is rather, designed to illustrate the insuperable difficulty of ethical decision-making, to suggest that very often, if not always, we will find ourselves unable to make what we, or anyone else, would consider to be a ‘correct’ or ‘satisfactory’ solution to an ethical problem. Indeed, the fact that such ethical decisions will leave traces of dissonances within us and others should suggest to us that any decision-making ‘calculus’ or ‘procedure’ is likely to be flawed, and that at best, we should only expect ‘approximate’ or ‘satisficed‘ resolutions of ethical dilemmas.  These dilemmas serve to educate us about the dimensions of the human problem that generated them, and may further guide our ethical decision-making in related domains. But that is all they are supposed to do; they are not supposed to adjudicate between ‘rival’ ethical frameworks and show that one leads to ‘better’ decisions than the other. There is no ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ that is ‘correct’; instead, if the problem is fully fleshed out, at best we should expect to learn about the kinds of human situations that can give rise to them, and how we may ‘work around’ them in the future. We will gain, as a bonus, an added insight into why human affairs have been quite so messy and complex over the years. That is all we should expect from our reading of, and ‘resolution’ of, ethical dilemmas.

To illustrate this claim–and to further make the point that literature can provide moral instruction as well as, if note better than, formal ethical theory–I tell them the story of reading Alistair Maclean‘s WWII novel HMS Ulysses as a teenager, and the effect that one particular incident within it had on me. The precise details are a little hazy–as might be expected, given that I read the novel more than thirty years ago–but the outline is quite clear. An Allied convoy consisting of merchant ships and destroyer escorts is headed to Murmansk to deliver supplies to Russian forces; a German U-boat sneaks in and torpedoes one of the ships of the convoy; as the ship burns but refuses to sink, the captain of the HMS Ulysses orders it sunk in order to prevent its burning ruins from attracting German long-distance bombers and other U-boats from attacking other ships in the convoy; this order is reluctantly executed by a young midshipman despite the fervent expressions of horror and dismay by junior officers and enlisted men; after the torpedo is fired, we find out that that midshipman’s brother was one of the sailors on the ship he had just torpedoed.

When I finish telling this story, suitably embellished to bring out the horrors of the situation being described, I describe the conclusions I drew upon reading it:

War is a cruel and inhumane business; it makes monsters out of all us; military discipline is fascistic. We should not fight wars because we should not put men and women in conditions that require them to take decisions like the one the captain of the HMS Ulysses and the midshipman had to take.

There was no ‘correct solution’ for this WWII trolley problem. The only solution to it was to not fight the war that allowed it to develop. But notice again, that WWII was a gigantic Trolley Problem all of its own with no ‘solutions’ except for very difficult, painful, and entirely ‘suboptimal’ ones. By its end, the Allies had committed many war crimes in an effort to combat other moral atrocities.

There is no getting away from the difficulty of ethical decision-making; any ‘professional’ ethicist who believes otherwise is a charlatan. Those who believe such solutions obtain are deluded.

Climbing The Grand Teton (And Finding Myself At The Top)

In August 2012, my wife and I went on a road-trip through parts of the American southwest and west: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were our most prominent destinations. We camped and hiked in several national parks; I made note of some of those experiences here.  Among the national parks we hiked in was Grand Teton National Park; there, we went on a day hike up to Surprise Lake. The views, as promised, were spectacular; we sat by the shores of an alpine lake and gazed at the surrounding peaks and glacial cirques, awed and humbled by the stunning setting for our well-earned picnic lunch. (My wife, by some measure the more enterprising of the two of us, even partook of what seemed like a bone-chilling dip in the waters of Surprise Lake.)

On the way back to the parking lot, we met climbers returning from their ascent of the Grand Teton. I stopped to ask how their climbing had gone; I was curious and envious in equal measure. I knew the views they must have enjoyed would have been even more spectacular than ours; and of course, mountaineers and climbers have always enthralled me with their feats. The climbers enthusiastically responded; they had made it to the summit in good time, and were now headed back to the parking lot for some well-earned rest. When I enquired further about their experience up on the peak, they replied that it had been a ‘totally doable climb; you’ve got to have a head for exposure, of course.’  On hearing this, I turned to my wife and said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ll never climb the Grand.”

I’m scared of heights and have been for as long as I can remember. Even the mention of exposure up on the mountains was enough to send a little chill through my heart. I wanted to see what the views from the summit of the Grand were like; I knew that up on its ridges and faces, I would encounter a spectacular alpine landscape. But it felt beyond my reach; quite simply, I did not have the mental wherewithal to venture into that domain.

This past August, I climbed the Grand Teton in the company of my guide, Chris Brown, (of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) and another climber, Kirk Nelson. We ascended via the Pownall-Gilkey route, one made easier by the presence of roped slings on its most challenging pitch. There was some exposure but none of it paralyzed me; I had started to accept my unease at being exposed to precipitous cliffs as an inseparable part of the climbing experience.  When I made it to the summit, I was visibly overcome with emotion; at that moment, the feeling of having managed to work through one of the most persistent fears present in my being was among the most powerful I had experienced in a very long time. For I knew that at that moment, I had, in a manner of speaking, found entrance to a new world, one in which I would not be limited by a fear that would hold me back from venturing forth to explore its offerings. I had not imagined that this task was one I was capable of undertaking, but there, on that summit, I had proof of its successful accomplishment.  It was, as the cliche goes, a transformative experience; I saw myself in a whole new light.

Our self-discovery is not merely a matter of introspection; very often, if not always, it requires acts that change, by active construction, the person we are. And could become.


The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’