Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A rose by any other name...

Reading David Oshinsky's book about the history of Bellvue hospital. Near the beginning there is a quick summation:
Bel-Vue, a few miles from New York, on the East River is now considered by the people at large as A House of Death," wrote a popular pamphleteer. "So odious is the idea of being put there as to lessen one's chance of recover." Almshouse, pesthouse, death house -- these are the indelible roots of Bellevue Hospital, thrust deep in the bedrock of America's fastest-growing city.

This was at a time when most people went their whole lives without ever seeing a doctor of any description; their whole lives... get it?

Someone needs to trademark all these wonderful hospital names: Almshouse, pesthouse, death-house

People are dying to get in!!

Monday, April 17, 2017

The later life of St. Francis of Assisi

Reading a review of Reluctant Saint in First Things.
Ruined physically by blindness, malaria, cancers, and leprosy, and unable to govern his own Order, which was already breaking into factions, Francis’ spiritual mettle was truly tested. Earlier, he had told his brothers that God “wanted me to be a new kind of fool in this world.” At the end, Francis was anything but a carefree troubadour.
Don't really know too much about him, but as he's a founder of such a long-lived movement, I guess I should

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Wisdom by Byron Herbert Reece

I recently stumbled on this lyrical Southern poet from a mini-biography in a 1960's issue of The Georgia Review made up principally of letters he wrote to a friend. He lived up in the North Georgia mountains and has nothing left in print that I could find. His first collection was called "Ballad of the Bones" (Dutton, 1946) and this poem is called "Wisdom"

Though aimless as the sun or wind
Observe how agile is the mind.
A silver fish with silver fin
The roving mind moves out and in
Among the roots of things to learn.
A swimmer in an earthen urn
The mind goes slyly on its way,
But by what paths it does not say;
And sounds that it will never tell
Trouble the water, like a bell
Warning the mind that it should shun
A shore already touched upon.

In all that I have read of his, he revels in the world of nature and flowing thoughts. I haven't checked out everything he published, but it seems like his work would make an excellent volume of complete works along side these letters. I'm looking at you University of Georgia Press and Mercer College Press.





Sunday, April 9, 2017

Procession of the Sciences

I've been getting to know the many books of Harry Emerson Fosdick, a prolific writer and founder of Riverside Church near Columbia University in NYC. He's a thoughtful guy who wrote insightfully about all facets of spirituality in the middle of the 20th Century. One of his many collections of sermons, Successful Christian Living (Harper, 1937), most famous for "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism", also includes "When Each Man Cleans Up His Own Life". During the course of that sermon, he has this to say about science growing as mankind grows:

An interesting revelation of human nature is presented in the chronological order in which the great sciences developed. Which science came first? Astronomy. Our first scientific knowledge concerned the things farthest away. And after that came Geology, a little closer in, the story of the ancient background of our earth; and after that Biology, somewhat closer in, the story of the world of life which has preceded us; and after that Sociology -- in any scientific sense -- still closer in, the story of the human setting into which our lives are born. And, last of all, emerging only yesterday, postponed for centuries by our emotions and prejudices about ourselves, making us unable or unwilling honestly to face ourselves, came Psychology. The realm farthest off came first, the realm nearest at hand -- ourselves -- came last. It is as though even in science men for centuries had fought against coming to grips with themselves. Look inside your own life and see if this is not a true parable of human experience. The last man any of us wants to meet, so clairvoyantly seen that his real problems stand plainly out, is himself.

I like the flow of that. Speaking of science, a little bit from his autobiography mentions when Mr. and Mrs. Einstein  moved to the US, Fosdick toured them around the beaufiful new church he and Rockefeller had built which included a sculpture depicting Einstein who said upon seeing it: "That could not have happened anywhere except in America." Finishing with "I will have to be very careful for the rest of my life as to what I do and what I say."

Monday, April 3, 2017

Rules of thumb for critical thinking

There are two things that can help with complex challenges without knocking your head against the wall: "rules of thumb" and the ever-popular "cargo cult". The latter is a set of steps, recipes, shortcuts that you don't really understand but usually get the job done, God help you if something goes wrong along the way because you really don't know why it works. The former is when you basically grok what's happening where a rule of thumb acts as a sharp knife, cutting through extraneous fluff to get down to what really needs to happen.

I prefer rules of thumb.

This essay offers a few tips to help with various philosophical problems. First off is a simple test to refute a claim:
Let's begin with a heuristic that is easy to use, but quite fertile. The word ‘the’ is the most common word in English. A locution of the form ‘… the X …’ – what philosophers call a definite description – typically comes with an assumption that there is exactly one X. We might be able to challenge that assumption, in two ways: perhaps there is more than one X; perhaps there are no Xs. So the heuristic here is to see the word ‘the’ in neon lights, as it were – by italicising it, underlining it, or otherwise mentally highlighting it – and to try each challenge.
and goes on to show how effective it can be with various problems. Eventually leading to this nice example of the short-comings of philosophy. Given the proof: 1)If God exists he would have created the best of all possible worlds 2)This isn't the best of all possible worlds, therefore God doesn't exist
... perhaps God exists, but didn't create anything. Yet one might insist that he must have, perhaps regarding that as a part of the meaning of ‘God’. This brings us to the second premise. Again, note the contrast: our world, as opposed to other worlds. This prompts a different response: God did not create our world, but he created the best of all possible worlds (instead). This suggests that the argument is invalid: we can imagine premises 1 and 2 being true, without being committed to the conclusion. Or imagine that God did create the best of all possible worlds; and the second best; and the third best… Eventually, we get to our world, which is way down the list, but he created it nonetheless – perhaps because there is still a net balance of good over evil. Again, this suggests that the argument is invalid – only ‘suggests’, mind; perhaps it is impossible for one God to create multiple worlds, for reasons given by David Lewis in On the Plurality of Worlds (1986). It presupposes that God faces a world limit.

Where does this leave us? Well, we did not manage to prove the existence of God, nor prove his non-existence. (I hope you are not too disappointed!) But that’s par for the course in philosophy – it rarely proves anythingconclusively. Instead, I hope I have given you some sense of what philosophical reasoning is like, and how that reasoning can be stimulated and enhanced by the use of various heuristics. Along the way, we saw some instances of what followed from what (or not), exposed some sophisms, spotted some fallacies, and policed some of our reasoning.
Worth a read

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Fifth week of Lent

At mass today the reading before the homily started was John 11 with Martha, Mary and Jesus.  Lazarus had been laid to rest four days ago and then he emerges from the tomb wearing burial garb. Today the priest ruminated on the natures of the two women: Martha, a person of action and Mary, not so much. This led him to mention an old tradition within the community of nuns. Apparently it's not very common now but back in the day nuns identified as either a "Mary" who devotedly prays and a "Martha" who is practical and does the work as well taking care of those of  the "Mary" while they are often lost in prayer.

Never heard of that before but I guess it still exists in some form. Here's comment from a few years ago from this blog post

We need to let go of the "Mary or Martha" concepts in our lives and begin to live with the love of Sisters in Christ. He has given us the ability to choose both! Living in the "&" gives us a daily stress-free life, full of love, faith, forgiveness, compassion, strength and most of all for me...peace. In our busy, routine days and struggles we go through, if we remember to walk in the "&", we will be able to receive the blessings and goodness the Lord has planned for us!

So, are you Martha or a Mary or both?

Epictetus: three-stage strategy to think stoically

I knew of this but hadn't really thought of it as a "thing" until I saw a reference in Julia Annas's essay "Epictetu...