Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 9th, 2015

The Suicide of the Liberal Arts

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If people would only think.

The Eldest point out this essay:

I was a few minutes early for class. Father Alexander, my high-school sophomore-homeroom teacher, was standing outside the room, cigarette in his mouth, leaning on the doorjamb. “Morning, Father.”

His response was to put his arm across the door. “Agresto,” he said, “I have a question I’ve been thinking about and maybe you can help me.”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Do you think a person in this day and age can be called well educated who’s never read the ‘Iliad’?” I hadn’t read the “Iliad,” and am not even sure I had heard of it. “Hmmm. Maybe, I don’t see why not. Maybe if he knows other really good stuff . . .” His response was swift. “OK, Agresto, that proves it. You’re even a bigger damn fool than I thought you were.”


I grew up in a fairly poor Brooklyn family that didn’t think that much about education. My father was a day laborer in construction—pouring cement, mostly. He thought I should work on the docks. Start by running sandwiches for the guys, he told me. Join the union. Work your way up. There’s good money on the docks. And you’ll always have a job. He had nothing against school, except that if bad times came, working the docks was safer.

I also grew up in a house almost without books. All I remember is an encyclopedia we got from coupons at the grocery store and a set of the “Book of Knowledge” from my cousin Judy. Once in a while I’d head over to the public library and borrow something—a book on tropical fish, a stamp catalog, a book by someone called Levi on pigeons. It never dawned on me to look at what else there was. Who read that stuff anyway?

So now I’m a professor and former university president who grew up without much real childhood reading until eighth grade, two or three years before the “Iliad” question. Sister Mary Gerald asked me one day if I read outside of class. I told her about the pigeon book and the stamp catalog. No, she asked, had I ever read any literature?

Whereupon she pulled out something called . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2015 at 3:56 pm

Posted in Daily life

Q: Is free will tenable? A: No.

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From the introduction to Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (currently $1.99):


FROM SCOTLAND, FOR MORE THAN 125 YEARS, THE GIFFORD Lectures have been dispatched into the world owing to the behest and endowment of Adam Lord Gifford, a nineteenth-century Edinburgh advocate and judge with a passion for philosophy and natural theology. Under the terms of his will he directed these lectures to be given on the topic of natural theology with the stipulation that the subject be treated “as a strictly natural science” and “without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is. . . . [T]hey may freely discuss . . . all questions about man’s conceptions of God or the Infinite, their origin, nature, and truth, whether he can have any such conceptions, whether God is under any or what limitations, and so on, as I am persuaded that nothing but good can result from free discussion.” The lectures have focused on religion, science, and philosophy. If you have truly sampled the books that have flowed from them, you will quickly discover their bone-rattling quality. Some of the greatest minds of the Western world have delivered their ideas during the course of these lectures such as William James, Niels Bohr, and Alfred North Whitehead to mention a few. Many of the long list of participants have precipitated major intellectual battles; some have spelled out the vastness of the universe or decried the failure of the secular world to provide a hopeful message about the meaning of life, while others have flat out rejected theology—natural or otherwise—as a worthwhile topic for grown-ups to spend any time thinking about. Seemingly, everything has been said, and all of it is stated with such clarity and force that when the assignment fell to me to add my own perspective, I almost withdrew.

I think I’m like everyone who has read the many books that have come from those lectures. We all feel the tug of an insatiable desire to carry on the quest to know more about the situation in which we humans find ourselves. In a way, we are stupefied by our interest because we do now know a great deal about the physical world, and most of us believe the implications of our modern knowledge, even though we sometimes have a hard time accepting wholly scientific views. Thinking about these things is what a Gifford lecture is all about, and I found myself wanting to throw in my own two cents’ worth. Though submitting my own perspective in that forum is as scary as it is heady, I do want to show that all of the spectacular advances of science still leave us an unshakeable fact. We are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined universe.

We humans are big animals, clever and smart as we can be, and we frequently use our reasoning to a fault. And yet, we wonder, is that it? Are we just a fancier and more ingenious animal snorting around for our dinner? Sure, we are vastly more complicated than a bee. Although we both have automatic responses, we humans have cognition and beliefs of all kinds, and the possession of a belief trumps all the automatic biological process and hardware, honed by evolution, that got us to this place. Possession of a belief, though a false one, drove Othello to kill his beloved wife, and Sidney Carton to declare, as he voluntarily took his friend’s place at the guillotine, that it was a far, far better thing he did than he had ever done. Humans are the last word, even though we can feel occasionally pretty inconsequential as we look up at the billions of stars and universes within which we are situated. The question still haunts us, “Are we not part of a bigger scheme of meaning?” Conventional hard-earned wisdom from science and much of philosophy would have it that life has no meaning other than what we bring to it. It’s completely up to us, even though the gnawing question always follows as to whether or not that really is the way it is.

But now, some scientists and philosophers are even suggesting that what we bring to life is not up to us. Here are some truths of modern knowledge and their awkward implications. The physiochemical brain does enable the mind in some way we don’t understand and in so doing, it follows the physical laws of the universe just like other matter. Actually, when we think about it, we wouldn’t want it any other way. For instance, we wouldn’t want our actions, such as lifting our hand to our mouth, to result in a random movement: We want that ice cream in our mouth not on our forehead. Yet, there are those who say that because our brains follow the laws of the physical world, we all, in essence, are zombies, with no volition. The common assumption among scientists is that we know who and what we are only after the fact of nervous system action. Most of us, however, are so busy, we can’t take time out to think through or be burdened by such claims, and only a few of us succumb to existential despair. We want to do our jobs, get home to our wife or husband and kids, play poker, gossip, work, have a Scotch, laugh about things, and simply live. We seemingly don’t puzzle the meaning of life most of the time. We want to live life, not think about it.

And yet, a certain belief is palpably dominant in the intellectual community, and that belief is that we live in a completely determined universe. . .

Read more by buying the book. And I don’t know about you, but I am now definitely looking for books that are collections of Gifford Lectures from one series or another.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2015 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Books, Science

NY Times editorial: “Congress and Obama Are Too Timid on Marijuana Reform”

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The editors of the NY Times:

Even as support for ending marijuana prohibition is building around the country, Congress and the Obama administration remain far too timid about the need for change.

Last year, residents in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted to join Colorado and Washington State in making recreational use of marijuana legal. Later this year, residents of Ohio are expected to vote on a ballot measure that would legalize it. Nevadans will vote on a legalization proposal next year. And Californians could vote on several similar measures next year.

Instead of standing by as change sweeps the country, federal lawmakers should be more actively debating and changing the nation’s absurd marijuana policies, policies that have ruined millions of lives and wasted billions of dollars. Their inaction is putting businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in dubious legal territory — doing something that is legal in their state but is considered a federal crime. Many growers, retailers and dispensaries also have to operate using only cash because many banks will not serve them, citing the federal prohibition. Recently, the Federal Reserve denied a master account to a credit union in Colorado seeking to provide financial services to marijuana businesses.

Lawmakers who hope their colleagues in Congress will act face an uphill struggle. For example, a bill introduced in the Senate by Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats of New Jersey and New York, respectively, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, would allow states to legalize marijuana for medical use. It would also allow banks and credit unions to provide financial services to cannabis-based businesses in states that have legalized the drug. The bill has 16 sponsors, including two Republicans, but the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has not scheduled it for a hearing or a vote. An identical bill in the House with 17 sponsors, eight of them Republican, is also languishing in committee.

Congress has taken a few positive steps, like approving a provision that would prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to keep states from carrying out their own medical marijuana laws. And some senior Republicans, including Mr. Grassley and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have expressed support for the medical use of a compound known as cannabidiol, which is found in the cannabis plant but is not psychoactive. The Obama administration recently made it easier for scientists to study marijuana by removing a requirement that studies not funded by the federal government go through an additional review process, beyond what is required for researchers working with other drugs.

But both Congress and the White House should be doing more. Specifically, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2015 at 9:50 am

Posted in Drug laws

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