Wednesday, September 22, 2021

R.I.P Charles Mills (1951-2021)

I was very saddened to learn of the passing of Charles Mills, who has made many significant contributions to debates in political philosophy, especially on ideal theory/non-ideal theory and race.  

Sadly I never had the opportunity to meet Charles Mills or have any correspondence with him.  But I always considered him a "non-ideal" comrade-in-arms, making the case for the discipline to take more seriously the realities of the real (vs imagined) world.  Mills's impact on debates in the profession will no doubt continue to be felt for a very long time.  


Friday, September 17, 2021

Education Crisis Due to School Closures

 The largest impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on children in the world has come from the harms of school closures vs the virus itself.  This week UNICEF released this report that nearly 77 million children have have been out of the classroom for the past 18 months.  This is a devastating public health disaster that seldom makes the headlines.  Some details from the report:

Since the onset of the pandemic, schools were completely closed for an average of 18 weeks (4.5 months) worldwide. If partial closures are accounted for, the average duration of closures represents 34 weeks (8.5 months) worldwide, or nearly a full academic year. 

For UNESCO, the past two academic years have resulted in learning losses and increased drop-out rates, impacting the most vulnerable students disproportionately.  

Schools in most countries have adopted some forms of sanitation protocol such as wearing masks, using hand sanitizers, improving ventilation and social distancing, which were also key to re-opening schools last year. 

The educational deficits created by school closures will be felt for many years to come, long after this pandemic is over.  In my opinion this has been the worst part of the public health response to the pandemic, its harms will far outweigh any possible benefits by a significant margin.   It will be one for the history books in terms of the (lack of) evidence-based public health decision making, which imposed disproportionate costs and burdens on the portion of the population least at risk from serious illness and death from the virus. The education, emotional and mental health toll of school closures is something I have witnessed first-hand with my own three children. Prolonged school closures are a global tragedy that should have never happened.  When the dust settles with respect to the media fixation on positive COVID-19, the magnitude of the carnage of harm some of the actions we have taken will have to be reckoned with.  



Reading Group on Stoicism (Post #2)

Marcus Aurelius

Meditations (BOOKS 5-8 summary)

For the second meeting (notes for the first is here) of the Stoics Philosophy Meetup group we will be covering books 5-8 of Marcus Aurelius’s Mediations

A number of themes we have encountered in Books 1-4 are addressed again in these later chapters, including “presentism”, taking guidance from Nature/ Logos, our mortality and death and our ability to control or modulate our internal beliefs to relieve unnecessary anxiety and suffering.  I will note a few quotations on these themes below, to help give our discussion some focus.  I conclude with some criticisms or reservations I have about some of the insights MA advocates.

Book 5 begins with some insights into the attitude we should have at the start of the day, as we wake up in bed.  MA remarks:

1. At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for— the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

—But it’s nicer here. . . .  So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And

you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

             I like the message MA starts off with in this chapter, we do not need to have lofty plans for the day, packed with grandiose aspirations of wisdom and moral actions.  Instead, the focus should on our purpose in life, those core values can be our inspiration.  We are part of nature, and understanding and appreciating that connection can help provide the needed inspiration to get out of bed and do things.

             A number of times MA addresses the issue of interpersonal conflict, when people frustrate our goals or life. The following passage notes that other people are the right occupation of our life, but at the same time we need to be prepared to adapt when they obstruct our life purpose:

20. In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.  But when they obstruct our proper tasks, they become

irrelevant to us—like sun, wind, animals. Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.

             In section 25 he makes the following statement regarding being wronged by people:

25. So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.

             I am not sure I agree with this sentiment, which doesn’t strike me as very humble.  At least I would like to first try to understand why someone hurt me before saying “that is their problem”.  Elsewhere MA makes that kind of proviso, but not here.  I think it is important to note such provisos to the type of proclamation in section 25, otherwise it will legitimate a rather defensive and arrogant attitude vs flexible and humble one.

In Book 7 MA returns to this same them when he remarks, with a bit more nuance this time:

26. When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?

             In this passage MA is recommending you engage in some empathetic understanding, not for the purposes of appeasing or legitimizing the actions of the wrong doer, but rather for your own inner peace and benefit.  Once you better understand their motives you may be able to forgive or have compassion for them.  Again, this is a bit better than the comment above, but I think we should not ignore the possibility that we were wronged by someone “because we, in some sense, deserved it”.  There may be occasions were our own actions (unknowing) hurt others, and so they reciprocate the hurt (which of course may not be the best way of communicating that they were wronged, but they do so nonetheless).  If we defensively say “that is their problem” or “they have a different sense of good and evil from me” we miss the opportunity to re-evaluate how adequate our sense of good and evil was in this particular instance.  Perhaps we misjudged things.  In his rush to ensure “inner peace” I think MA is prescribing we sacrifice some humility and the opportunity for growth and learning.    

MA also offers some short, pithy comments about being positive and happy.  Here are a few samples I thought were worth reflecting upon and discussing: 

Book 6, 48. When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on.  Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.

Book 7, 69. Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.

Book 8 , 26. Joy for humans lies in human actions. Human actions: kindness to others, contempt for the senses, the interrogation of appearances, observation of nature and of events in nature.

             And on the recurring themes of death and mortality, MA has the following to say:

Book 6   47. Keep this constantly in mind: that all sorts of people have died—all professions, all nationalities. Follow the thought all the way down to Philistion, Phoebus, and Origanion. Now extend it to other species.  We have to go there too, where all of them have already gone:

             . . the eloquent and the wise—Heraclitus, Pythagoras,

Socrates . . .

. . . the heroes of old, the soldiers and kings who followed

them . . . . . . Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Archimedes . . . . . . the smart, the generous, the hardworking, the cunning, the selfish . . . . . . and even Menippus and his cohorts, who laughed at the whole brief, fragile business.  All underground for a long time now.

And what harm does it do them? Or the others either—the ones whose names we don’t even know? The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.

             Book 8

58. Fear of death is fear of what we may experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new. But if we experience nothing, we can experience nothing bad. And if our experience changes, then our existence will change with it—change, but not cease.

             The last topic I will mention is the one I am most critical of in these chapters- it is what I see as the overly glorified sense of independence MA celebrates, expressed through our exercise of philosophy and connection to nature.  It is the suggestion that we need only retreat to our mind, as if it were the sole salvation for our wellbeing.  Perhaps I’ll start with his critique of the “socialized identity” we are all prone to develop- the need for acceptance and praise from others.  I actually agree with much of what he says about this point.  For example, I am in broad agreement with this statement: 

             Book 6, 16

        what is to be prized?  An audience clapping? No. No more than the clacking of their tongues. Which is all that public praise amounts to—a clacking of tongues 

        So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize?  I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for. That’s the goal of all trades, all arts, and what each of them aims at: that the thing they create should do what it was designed to do. The nurseryman who cares for the vines, the horse trainer, the dog breeder—this is what they aim at. And teaching and education—what else are they trying to accomplish?  So that’s what we should prize. Hold on to that, and you won’t be tempted to aim at anything else.

             This point reminded me of Pressfield’s discussion of the pro and amateur in The War of Art , which I reviewed here.  In that book Pressfield argued that we can achieve “psychological security” in one of two realms- within the hierarchy of a group, or by our connection to a territory. The former is our default setting, but as we mature, and acquire the experiences and pain and growth of life, we shift to the territorial alternative.  The hierarchy orientation is fatal to the artist, argues Pressfield, because it makes us compete against others, equate our happiness with a rank in the hierarchy, treat others based on their rank (rather than their humanity).

 Much of what MA argues also reminded me of Kegan’s distinction between the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind and transformative mind.  The former  (approximately 58% of the population) just internalize the values and roles socially prescribed to them.  But the latter two conceptions of the mind, achieved by only a minority of adults, 35% and 1% respectively, can stand back and critically assess societal norms and roles.

             Where I part ways with MA concerns the strong sense of autonomy he believes we can (and should) have over our internal beliefs and wellbeing.  I think it is a matter of degree.  Yes we have “some” control (and can cultivate more), but I think there are limits and noting those limits is important.  In particular I have in mind the following comments in Book 8:

             16. Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The                    action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision—and your own mind.

             28. Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the             soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity.  All our             decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them.

             Perhaps MA is just made of sterner stuff than I (he was a Roman Emperor afterall!), but I don’t think everything is within our control.  At a minimum I worry that MA’s sentiment could be misapplied to cases were people are really suffering a mental health crisis and rather than seeking professional help and treatment they tell themselves “I can control all my feelings and ailments”.  I think it really depends on the severity of the suffering in question, and its source.  Yes sometimes tweaking and adjusting one’s perceptions and beliefs can be sufficient to improve one’s quality of life.  But other times this attitude could simply delay, possibly even exacerbate, a mental health illness.  At its worse I think MA’s account of autonomy and independence is an avoidant-typeattachment (again, perhaps not a bad trait to have when one's career is Emperor!)

In short- I really like MA the critic of the hierarchy of a group and advocate of the self-authoring/transformative mind, but not the MA who espouses the avoidant attachment style.  I think many of his passages align with both positions.  Despite these reservations,  I think these chapters offer a plurality of provocative and insightful bits of knowledge and wisdom.  I look forward to delving into these topics in greater detail with the Meetup group.



Monday, September 13, 2021

The Genetic Lottery of Life: A Primer

This morning I teach my first in-person class in 18 months, since the pandemic and closure of universities in Ontario in March 2020.  I am really looking forward to seeing and interacting with students in-person again.  

My class is my 4th year seminar "Science and Justice", which focuses on the ethical, social and legal implications of the genetic revolution (with a focus on the prospect of "enhancing humans").  Here I will lay out a few of the thoughts I emphasis in the first class to frame the course and help motivate the students to get excited about tackling these issues.

Firstly, I begin the class with a conjecture I have started the class with for some 15 years now, which has been borne out by the COVID-19 pandemic- namely, that science policy is the most important area of public policy decision-making in the 21st century.   And thus students of political science must have some understanding of what science is, and what constitutes "well-ordered" science and responsible science policy decision-making if we are to have any hope of meeting the societal challenges of the 21st century,  This century human populations face significant risks from infectious and chronic diseases, climate change, global aging, artificial intelligence, etc. Scientific innovation (or the lack thereof) will profoundly influence humanity's capacity to meet the novel predicaments of the 21st century.

My course focuses on a specific area of science and policy- advances in the biomedical sciences (especially biomedical "enhancement"). The fact that the class focus is on "enhancing" humans is apt since the singular focus of public health, politicians and the media for the past 18 months has been on enhancing the human immune system to make us less vulnerable to serious illness and death from SARS-CoV-2.  This pandemic is not a focus of this course, though I am offering a new course in the winter term on the "politics of pandemics", which has 2 weeks dedicated to these issues as they pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I start my course this morning with a brief insight made by the philosopher John Rawls, with respect to the role 2 different types of lotteries play in our lives- the social and natural lotteries of life.  The social lottery of life determines the family one is born into, which can have a profound influence on our life prospects.  Being born into a wealthy family can open up many opportunities that would be lacking if one was born into a family that has little money or lacked a steady income and adequate housing.  What parents invest in their children- financially, emotionally and intellectually, can have a profound (positive or detrimental) impact on a child's wellbeing and the (eventual) adult they grow into.  While society cannot "control" the social lottery of life, Rawls argues justice requires we try to mitigate such "unchosen" inequalities by ensuring fair equality of opportunity for education, for example.  Society's institutions can at least help guard against the vulnerabilities of the social lottery of life, and ameliorate some of it's inequalities via progressive taxation and (re)distributive justice.  

The second lottery of life is the natural lottery of life.  We all enter this world having inherited two copies of most genes, one from our biological mother and one from our biological father.  Writing in the early 1970s Rawls argued that society could not directly influence the natural lottery of life, and thus he focused only on the distribution of what he called "social" (e.g. wealth) vs "natural primary" goods like health, intelligence and imagination and vigour.  But science has advanced significantly over the past 50 years, so much so that this Rawlsian assumption is no longer valid.

The "genetic inheritance" we begin life, like the social lottery, also profoundly influences our life prospects.  If we are born with 1 of the 10 000 known single gene  disorders, then this genetic inheritance will adversely impact our health and wellbeing, depending on the severity of the disorder.  Serious early onset conditions might cause physical and intellectual disability, and reduce life expectancy by decades.  However, at the other end of the spectrum are those rare individuals who inherit the genetics of exceptional longevity which can increase the likelihood that they might enjoy a century of disease-free life, delaying (or even escaping) the most common diseases (like heart disease, cancer and stroke) that typically kill people in their 70s or 80s.

Over the past few decades advances in our understanding of the role genes play in health, cognition, mood, behaviour and personality has resulted in the lifting of a real "veil of ignorance" which normative theorists were functioning from behind with respect to conjecturing about the role of "nature" vs "nurture".  We now know that both nature and nurture are important.  With other 3000 gene therapy trails worldwide, and more precise technologies like CRISPR, the prospect of directly and intentionally modifying human biology is upon us.  We are living in the midst of a "genetic revolution" which is altering the moral landscape so that the "natural lottery" of life is shifting from the realm of "beyond human control" to "within our influence".  And this means a revision of the moral landscape is also in order, as the demands of morality and justice will also shift.

The ambitious project that now awaits bioethicists and political philosophers is to canvass how we navigate a sage path forward which takes seriously the benefits and risks of intentionally modifying human biology.  From eugenics and the the safety and efficacy of gene therapy, to respect for reproductive freedom and the challenges of promoting health in late life, the genetic revolution presents us with some of the most important and fascinating ethical and societal predicaments of the 21st century.  By encouraging students to address these novel issues and debates, and helping them refine the intellectual skills needed to think cogently, creatively and sagely, we have a better chance of implementing well-ordered science.  I look forward to teaching the course this term! 



Friday, September 10, 2021

Study on the Effects of Remote Work

Since the pandemic started over 18 months ago many workers have "pivoted" to online activities when possible.  Nature Human Behaviour has a new study out on the effect of remote working among 61000+ Microsoft employees.  The abstract:

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused a rapid shift to full-time remote work for many information workers. Viewing this shift as a natural experiment in which some workers were already working remotely before the pandemic enables us to separate the effects of firm-wide remote work from other pandemic-related confounding factors. Here, we use rich data on the emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and workweek hours of 61,182 US Microsoft employees over the first six months of 2020 to estimate the causal effects of firm-wide remote work on collaboration and communication. Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.



Friday, September 03, 2021

Reading Group on Stoicism (Post #1)


Marcus Aurelius

 Meditations (BOOKS 1-4 summary)

This autumn I am running a reading group on Stoicism for the Philosophy Meetup Kingston group.  We are starting with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (available here ).

Marcus Aurelius (MA) was also a Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor during the second century.

For some of the historical background on MA, there is this interesting BBC interview here.

While I have some general sense of stoicism as a philosophy, I have not (before this reading group started) read any of the primary sources.  So I look forward to learning more about these thinkers over the coming months.

In this series of blog posts I offer some reflections to help the Meetup group focus on specific parts of the assigned reading, along with some interactive exercises to get us to critically engage with Stoicism.  I am really looking forward to our series on Stoicism.  Below is a brief summary of some points from Books I-IV of Meditations

Book I

This chapter is entitled “Debts and Lessons” and it lists people in MA’s life that have taught him valuable life lessons. 

Not only does he name a lengthy list of specific people, but he expands upon the particular life lesson(s) they have taught him.  Most of the examples express praise and gratitude for the positive examples in his life, but some also mention the lessons he learned from the shortcomings of others.  I think this testifies to the depth and sophistication of his observations and critical reflection.  It also brings attention to a central insight/tenant of Stoic philosophy- that it is our beliefs/perceptions about things (e.g. people, the world, etc.) that shape our life experiences (both positive and negative experiences).  It is important to note that, so we don’t simply take our internal world to be an accurate or authoritative reflection of the reality of the external world. 

When we train our mind to form healthy and productive habits of mind- by amplifying the significance of the positives and framing the negatives in a more helpful fashion- we can actually alter our experiences of life in dramatic ways compared to what they are when we adopt an unhealthy and unproductive mindset.  So we need to become conscious of the way our mind functions, of the (often unconscious) patterns we employ (e.g. trying to control what can’t be controlled, or ignoring important life lessons when they are clearly presented to us). 

It is worth noting that MA’s Meditations was written as his own personal diary notes.  It was not written as something intended for publication as a book for public viewing.  So the very act of writing down his reflections for his own record demonstrates his self-awareness that (1) the human mind has the potential to run off in different directions (both good and bad), but also (2) with knowledge and self-discipline, the mind can be consciously steered forward in a positive direction.

Here are just a few examples of the “Debts and Lessons” from Book I:

1.      MY GRANDFATHER VERUS: Character and self-control.

2.      MY FATHER (FROM MY OWN MEMORIES AND HIS REPUTATION): Integrity and manliness.

3. MY MOTHER: Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the simple way she lived—not in the least like the rich.

5. MY FIRST TEACHER: Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games. To put up with discomfort and not make demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers.

9. SEXTUS: Kindness. An example of fatherly authority in the home. What it means to live as nature requires… To show intuitive sympathy for friends, tolerance to amateurs and sloppy thinkers. His ability to get along with everyone: sharing his company was the highest of compliments, and the opportunity an honor for those around him…To praise without bombast; to display expertise without pretension.

11. FRONTO: To recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from “good families.”

12. ALEXANDER THE PLATONIST: Not to be constantly telling people (or writing them) that I’m too busy, unless I really am. Similarly, not to be always ducking my responsibilities to the people around me because of “pressing business.

13. CATULUS: Not to shrug off a friend’s resentment—even unjustified resentment—but try to put things right.

17. THE GODS: [This is a lengthy one, and an expression of MA’s gratitude for his parents, siblings, wife and children.]

 What do these reflections on Book 1 suggest?  Firstly, that MA possesses an observant mind.  He reflects upon, and digests the meaning of, his interactions with others, observing how people behave and the virtues and vices of different temperaments, attitudes and character.  Each person is a unique human being, with their own experiences and life lessons to teach us.  This is a very different way of looking at the social world than the mindset which groups humans loosely together along ideological (left vs right) or other (e.g. happy vs sad) lines. 

As an exercise to mimic the intellectual skills MA exercises in Book I, I recommend we each try to think of two family members that have taught us a very important life lesson.  It could be a parent, sibling, child, aunt, cousin, etc.  Prepare your thoughts so that you are comfortable sharing the details of at least one (or both) example(s) with the group.  What did this person teach you?  How did you come to observe this life lesson from them?  Did they regularly perform certain actions, or display certain character strengths?  Or perhaps weaknesses and mistakes? This is the same exercise we did in the “Philosophy of Education” meetup in August, when I asked people to think of one important teacher in their life.  But this time we are doing it to a family member. 


Book 2

A prominent theme of MA and stoicism is “presentism”- observing and attending to the “here and now” vs letting the mind wander aimlessly in the past or ruminate about an uncontrollable future.  MA provides the following instructions to help us control the gaze of our mind:

Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.

  We can often get sidetracked in life by fixating on the frustrations of life- our dealings with people that are inconsiderate, arrogant, gossipy, rude, etc.  MA recommends we adopt the perspective that such people have not seen the beauty of good, and rather than feel anger or hurt towards such persons we should accept that it is part of the natural order that there are such people (it cannot be avoided, but at the same time it should not be considered an obstruction, it is just life).  MA remarks about such people as follows: 

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural.

  The existence of life’s annoyances, and even the evil in the world, is just part of life, claims MA.  Chance is also part of nature.  He explains: 

The world is maintained by change—in the elements and in the things they compose. That should be enough for you; treat it as an axiom. Discard your thirst for books, so that you won’t die in bitterness, but in cheerfulness and truth, grateful to the gods from the bottom of your heart.

I have mixed minds about what I think MA is prescribing here.  I certainly agree adopting a mindset of acceptance is necessary for our achieving some sense of peace in this life (some might recall the reading group we did on acceptance and commitment therapy here and here ).  There will always be unfortunate events and bad people in life.  That simply is (part of) life.  However, we can also act in the world to at least mitigate certain bad events (e.g. wearing a seat belt doesn’t eliminate the chance of a car accident, but it does improve the odds of survival and less injury should this even arise).  As for the thirst for books, again, I believe it is a question of proportionality.  To me there are two extremes- the fool who never consults a book (e.g. driving a car without any knowledge of the rules of the road is folly), and the overcontrolling neurotic that never goes out on the road but instead sits in their car re-reading the handbook on driving safely but never “does”.  There is a time for reading and studying, and there is a time for action and accepting serendipity and risk in life.  The challenge can be observing if our attitudes and actions have gone awry and making the necessary correction without negative judgement about ourselves.  I think it is something we all must constantly work and re-work.  

MA reminds us that our mortality can serve as a useful corrective to the aimless mind, though it is predicated on a belief that the gods exist (I think we can replace this with some secular understanding on our simply being part of something bigger than ourselves, which provides the sense of purpose and meaning that motivates and gets us out of bed every morning).  He claims:

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. If the gods exist, then to abandon human beings is not frightening; the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, what would be the point of living in a world without gods or Providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us, and everything a person needs to avoid real harm they have placed within him. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death, they would have made sure that the ability to avoid it was within you. If it doesn’t harm your character, how can it harm your life?

The themes of death, mortality and god are recurring ones in MA’s Meditations.  Feel free to share any reflections you have with these themes with the group as we could spend time discussing and debating any of those themes (and no doubt will in future meetings).  I found the following passage one of the more profound comments in this book, worthy of our focusing on and digging a bit deeper:

14. Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?

MA then gets to the crux of stoicism with his reflections on the human condition and the role of philosophy.

17. Human life. Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion. Then what can guide us? Only philosophy.

How can philosophy help us navigate the changeable world, a world where our bodies are decaying and souls spinning and our luck is unpredictable?  Our capacity for philosophy is described by MA as “a power from within”, and something that is superior to pleasure and pain.  Death he claims is natural, and nothing natural can be evil.


Book 3

 Section 5 of this chapter details how to act:

5. How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings. Don’t gussy up your thoughts. No surplus words or unnecessary actions. Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness. Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others. To stand up straight—not straightened.

There is a lot to unpack here, some I certainly agree with (e.g. act selflessly, with forethought and no misgivings) and others I have some misgivings about (e.g. not requiring other people’shelp).

Book 4

Other central themes in Stoicism, especially MA’s Meditations, is cultivating the cognitive and emotional flexibility to “pivot” as adversity and challenging life circumstances arise.  MA starts book 4 with some reflections on this point:

1. Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.

This raises the interesting predicament of what the proper attitude should be to challenging life circumstances.  On the one hand, the thrust of what MA seems to be suggesting (at least in this passage) is to just accept those things, “turning obstacles into fuel”.  This strikes me as sage when applied to certain types of adversity (e.g. you lose a job, or a relationship ends, etc. and you need to move on in a positive direction), but I think there is a danger of it being applied in a cavalier way, such that you don’t take any responsibility or moral duty to try to prevent hazards that are ameliorable to human action.  For example, imagine a smoker who opines “I won’t quite smoking, if I get lung cancer I get lung cancer!  If so then it was nature’s command and meant to be regardless of what I do”.  While I see the potential benefit in the Stoic’s zest to translate adversity into a positive vehicle for growth, I also see the danger of what is called “adaptive preference formation”.  Someone might simply accept the exploitation and injustice of their society, or a relationship, taking the attitude that trying to change things is futile and runs counter to the “obey nature” or “going within” mantras.  There is a real risk that a society of Stoics would not be capable of making significant progress against societal problems and injustice.  Granted some of these issues might be less prevalent in a society composed of Stoics, but  I think there is an a tension here worthy of further discussion. 

And book 4 finishes with this powerful and provocative statement:

In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls. Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.

To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.

What are your thoughts on these comments?

Should be an interesting discussion.  Looking forward to the meeting!



Friday, July 09, 2021

“Flow” and the Life of an Academic


I love my career.  Being a scholar and teacher, and writing on this blog (which I have been doing now for over 15 years) are all richly fulfilling and intrinsically rewarding.  In this post I will link my work experience to the positive psychology concept of “flow”.

Academic work is laborious work, and as a career it has a great deal of uncertainty and stress associated with it.  Let me start off by detailing what some of these stresses were for me in the first few years of my career.  Doing so is a helpful way to frame the question- “Why choose this career path?”

Firstly, there was the stress of landing a tenure-track position after my PhD.  Each year there are only a very limited number of positions in one’s discipline, let alone area of specialization.  There are also a multitude of qualified applicants from around the world applying for those limited academic positions.  So the first significant career hurdle and stress every new PhD faces is landing a TT job in a very competitive job market.  This is very stressful and it can take many years to achieve.  A junior scholar must often survive by taking whatever limited employment opportunities happen to arise when they enter the job market, such as a postdoctoral position, adjunct teaching or short-term positions. These temporary positions enable one to meet the financial necessities of life while continuing to publish and gain some teaching experience.

I myself persisted in this uncertain state for 3 years post PhD.  My first job at Aberdeen University was a one year position (son #1 was born then).  My second job at Birmingham University was (initially) a 3 year position (and son #2 was born there).  When completing year 2 of that position I was fortunate to be offered a permanent position at Manchester University, at which time Birmingham countered with offering me a permanent position (but I really wanted to work with Hillel at Manchester, so I left Bham for Manchester). 

Before getting offered a permanent academic position I estimate I must have applied for around 75 academic jobs in total, and was interviewed for a dozen or so academic posts. I can recall being interviewed for positions in the following universities between the years 1999 and 2003:  Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bradford, Essex, Heythrop College (London),  Kentucky, McMaster, Manchester, Oxford, Reading, Queen’s University Belfast and Warwick.  The job interview process itself entails lots of additional stressors as one must prep for job interviews and talks and take the time to travel while also doing one's regular teaching and research.    

After (or if) one has landed a TT position, then the second major task a junior faculty faces is securing tenure over the next 5-6 years.  This means additional years of stress- writing and trying to get published- but also teaching, attending conferences, and providing service to the dept, university and discipline.  And add to this parenthood and life/career balance, and I think everyone in academia would agree that the life of an academic is not (on the whole, there may be moments when one does experience intense happiness) the hedonic happy life.  After tenure the pressures continue if one aspires to be promoted to Full Professor. 

I start by highlighting the above to help motivate my framing of what the positives of a career in higher education are, at least for me.  Given all the pressures and anxiety associated with aspiring to become an academic, why do it?  The wrong answer is that such a career promises a hedonically satisfying life (e.g. many people think professors enjoy an extended summer “off” when in reality that is the busiest time for research and writing!).  And I think it is important to know that before deciding to pursue such a career path.   

My positive answer to the “why do it?” question is two-fold.  Firstly, being a professor (much like fatherhood) provides an immense sense of purpose and meaning in my life.  By learning about the plight of humanity, and critically reflecting on the successes, failures and setbacks we have endured, my career affords me the privilege of satiating my curiosity every single day.  I am very passionate about the subject matter I cover in my courses and publications, and thus teaching and writing about these topics provides significant meaning to my life.  I see myself as a “foot soldier” in the battle to help advance knowledge, intellectual humility, cognitive flexibility and practical wisdom over the epistemic vices of dogma, intolerance, navel gazing, arrogance and tribalism.  As a participate in this battle I myself must constantly grow and learn how to refine the exercise of epistemic virtue, thus scrutinizing my own assumptions and biases.  Being a foot soldier in this battle is not easy and it is a never-ending struggle.  And yet it provides significant meaning to my life.

The second answer to the question- Why choose a career in academia?- is that such a life offers many opportunities to experience “flow”.  Flow is often described as a state of complete mental immersion.  When I am reading and writing, for example, I am fully absorbed in the activity.  The last paper I wrote was on the public health lessons to be learned from the 50th anniversary of the war on cancer.  Writing that paper took me into fascinating intellectual spaces- ranging from learning about the infectious diseases of the early 20th century (like polio and malaria), to the rise in obesity and physical inactivity and the successes and setbacks facing new cancer diagnostics and treatment options.  For weeks on end I was completely immersed in research, and writing and revising that paper.  The month of February 2021 is pretty much a complete blur as I did little outside of work on that paper. 

I also experience flow when teaching, at both the preparation stage and when actually meeting in-person with the class (for me the time always flies by so fast during a lecture or seminar).  I enjoy teaching so much I also volunteer teach in prison and organize a local philosophy meetup group so that I can spend my free-time conversing about philosophical questions with people that are not academics (but share my passion and curiosity for the topic).

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) represents flow in the image above- when perceived challenges and skills are above the actor’s average levels (why they are below, apathy is experienced).

I emphasize flow because I think it captures the most significant career rewards of being an academic.  The academic life is not about hedonic pleasures, but it can offer purpose, meaning and flow.

Despite all the stressors, anxiety and uncertainty academics face, the profession offers them the opportunity to experience a lifetime of flow. 

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

My academic work is not the only source of flow in my life, nor does all work entail flow (grading and admin work are non-flow work for me).  Parenthood, exercise and sports, cooking! and socializing are all important contributors to my flow as well. 

My experience of the bread and butter activities of being an academic (i.e. teaching and research) is that they contribute to my flow, while also contributing stress and anxiety for me.  I wouldn’t trade this life for any other.  The academic life, while not easy, has certainly been a rich and rewarding experience for me (given my intellectually curious nature and minimally risk-averse attitude towards job security in my late 20's and early 30's). 



Sunday, June 06, 2021

Biogerontology paper "Online first"

My latest journal publication titled "Responsible biology, aging populations and the 50th anniversary of the “War on Cancer”" is now available as an "online first" piece in the science journal Biogerontology.  A sample:

Kitcher (2004) argues that responsible conduct in science extends beyond obvious professional ethics like dealing honestly with colleagues, not misreporting lab results, etc.; it also applies to critically scrutinizing the underlying intellectual suppositions of scientific research itself (e.g. what the appropriate “ends” of basic science are) and science policy decision-making (e.g. the investment and allocation of research funds). More specifically, Kitcher argues that the following three theses are an integral part of what he calls “responsible biology”:

  1. (1)

    Scientists have an obligation, individually and collectively, to reflect on the ends—not just on the means—of scientific research.

  2. (2)

    scientists should conceive of themselves as artisans working for the public good, whose efforts are directed toward an ideal of well-ordered science; and

  3. (3)

    this ideal of well-ordered science should be understood in a global and democratic fashion (Kitcher 2004).

This essay examines the details of what is entailed by responsible biology, as this ideal pertains to biomedical research in a world of aging populations. Since the rise of epidemiology in the nineteenth century, the primary “ends” of biomedical research, for both public health and clinical medicine, have been the elimination of specific diseases (through both prevention and treatment). In the early twentieth century in the United States this end was successfully applied to a wide variety of infectious diseases that were responsible for early-life mortality. But in the late twentieth century the focus on mitigating the proximate causation of pathology had been expanded to include targeting chronic diseases like cancer. The question this article is concerned with is as follows: Does responsible biology sanction the continued fixation on disease control in today’s aging world? The answer advanced—after considering (1) the successes and limitations of the past half a century of the war on cancer in the United States, as well as (2) findings from the biology of aging (biogerontology) concerning the limits on human longevity and the malleability of the inborn aging process- is “No”. Rather than continue to prioritize the goal of extending life via disease elimination for populations reaching the upper limits of human lifespan, the more important goal of public health, medicine, biotechnology, and the health sciences should now shift toward delaying and compressing the period of the lifespan when frailty and disability increase substantially (Olshansky 2018).