Notes on the First Meeting — PREHISTORY


The first meeting! It begins.

When we had all taken our seats in the living room, shortly after 8:30 pm,  I started us off by sharing my thinking behind the name of our group.

1. Why “the Old New Way”?

We are doing something new tonight, I said.

But we are also doing something very, very old. We are asking the same questions that have been asked by, well… by  pretty much everyone, all through human history.

Who am I?

Why am I here?

How should I act? 

What happens after I die?

And as we will see (in our readings going forward), even taking a strictly non-supernatural approach to these questions is not new.

Hence the “old” part.

But then, you might ask: how are we are doing anything new at all?

For one, this is new because… we are doing it here and now, in October of 2014. The mere fact of our timing, in this place, at this moment, makes it new.

For another, this is new because… we have no idea where these meetings will lead us and how we will grow from them.

More than these points, however… there is another important way that I think what we are doing is new:

We will have to fashion a new language even to talk about it.

2. Why Will We Need a New Language? 

I elaborated a little more on this point:

The languages and associations we all bring with us to this first meeting, I suggested, are steeped in old dichotomies, old categories, old habits. No fault of our own; that’s just how it goes.

For example, unless we deliberately resist it…

  • we tend to think that rationality operates independently from emotion;
  • we tend to think of capital “M” Meaning as being “out there,” separate from an individual’s assessment of it. (We are in the habit of craving “objectivity” in all aspects of our lives);
  • we think of there being at least the possibility of reconciling all of our values and aspirations in a unified way, if only we could… just get it right;
  • many of us seek unseen realities, which are sometimes characterized as “transcendent” realms;
  • we think of “the animal part” of each of us (in so far as we acknowledge it at all) as a wild, impulsive nature, which must be directed into the proper channels (by what? The “non-animal part” of us?).

Much of this is a product of millennia upon millennia of religious, or so-called “spiritual” thinking.

This type of talk has infiltrated American’s politics especially, since our “rights”-based revolution drew from French Enlightenment thinkers, worshipers at the altar of Reason, as well as Platonic/Judeo-Christian traditions of thought.

It is the air we breathe.

We will attempting to refashion language in this group. Sounds ambitious, doesn’t it? And it is! I want us to actively contest these usual categories…

  • changing our orientation of ourselves so that we do not forget our status as evolutionary beings, animals formed by cross-currents of adaptation, not perfectible or pure in any sense but rife with contradictions all the way down;
  • reminding us that we are animals in everything we do (yes, even when listening to Mozart while doing higher math– all the way down);
  • looking with fresh eyes at our contemporary notions of “love,” “death,” “work,” “good,” “evil,” “real,” and so on; and
  • making sure to pay attention to our wordless, emotional, strangest responses, as much as we pay attention to what can be more easily articulated and affirmed by others.

I think we should embrace the confusion that this will cause us.

Confusion will be our friend in this process, since it will signal when we are getting somewhere.

3. Some Very General Guidelines for Our Group as We Begin

At this point, since this was our first meeting, I shared with the group some very general guidelines that I thought would be worth mentioning.

First, I said, I want to encourage complete freedom of expression in this group (and all the time! Why not?).

I don’t want there to be any confusion on this point… What I mean is that ANYBODY is encouraged to say ANYTHING and EVERYTHING at ANYTIME.

(As those of you who know me have already witnessed, I sometimes try to pursue a thought by saying provocative things, or extending the logic behind an argument to its limit… And I want you all to feel free to do that too!)

We all know, of course, that words can never adequately express much of what we will be exploring in this group. But – hey, we have words, and we should not be afraid of them just because they are inadequate.

Second, this group will be focused on finding non-supernatural ways of looking at the world and our identities in it.

This means some approaches, although they surely can be expressed, may not be where we stay.

Other groups (“places of worship,” as they are called, certain spiritual retreats, and so on) often use the language of “faith” and “transcendence” and “God is love” and the like. That probably won’t be the case here — where we will be more inclined to leave God out of it entirely and just go with the love.

I am interested in keeping our focus on thoroughly natural concerns and experiences. This life. This world.

It is my hope that these parameters will give our group its unique interest — and its value.

Third, it’s okay for us not to agree.

I want to say from the beginning that I expect everyone here to have a very idiosyncratic experience with this group.

For some this group may inspire you, for others it may frustrate you. Some of us will perhaps be changed by it, perhaps for the better; others of us may feel blocked, or made anxious, or even angry at times.

That’s fine.

It would be wonderful if we all arrived together at a rich synthesis of emotional awareness and philosophical understanding by the end of our meetings. But then again, it would be disturbing too if that happened  – wouldn’t it?

And anyway, I asked the group, don’t you find that, with surprising frequency, the very things you were most certain of ten years ago are the things that you feel completely different about today?

Let’s cherish our disagreements.

4. A Breathing Exercise to Begin

To start us off, I asked those present if I could lead us in a very brief… breathing exercise, before we plunged into our discussions. (I explained that I have found from experience that I think more clearly — and more intuitively — when I do this.)

So with only a slight feeling of awkwardness, and lots of good will, we closed our eyes and steadied ourselves for a moment before beginning.

5. The Question of “Attentiveness”

Not wanting to take any more time, I started us off at this point with a simple query for the group…

When we think of prehistoric people, I said, we imagine that they were extremely attentive to their surrounding — a leaf rustling, a change in the weather, a crooked branch that might be used as a tool.

But in thinking of them in this way over the last weeks it struck me… that we don’t want to over-romanticize them.

So my question was: Are we just as attentive now as prehistoric people were — only to different things?

Marie-José answered quickly and decisively, as those of us who know her would expect.

“Yes we are equally attentive!” she said. “But the stakes are much lower for us. We pay attention to which loaf of bread we want to buy at the bakery, or how to access an email on our iPhone while talking, or what music we want playing in the background as we drive. But for prehistoric people, a wrong decision about the weather, or what to listen to, could cost their lives. That is the difference!”

Lucie argued that we may be attentive, as Marie-José suggests, but in a far more superficial way. We don’t take the time to experience the fullness of what we are doing. Richard agreed that the distractions and busyness of our lives are such that we tend to glance from thing to thing. And it is getting worse, he suggested, in the digital age. “We are constantly being entertained,” he remarked.

Renée spoke of her recent experience of watching two men walk together down the sidewalk in San Francisco, both listening to music through bulky headphones. She couldn’t but help think how sadly unaware they seemed of their surroundings — and each other.

Sylvaine commented that she thought an important difference is that prehistoric people had more space.

Setenay questioned the vagueness of the term “attentive.” She wondered if we may be as attentive as prehistoric people, but not as “focused.”

Dean raised a contrary view to the one expressed so far.

He explained that he guessed we actually ARE as attentive, since our cognitive abilities are probably quite similar to prehistoric human beings. After all, the stakes for us when driving are certainly high. The stakes of which medication to take for a disease can be as high too. And many of the social and career choices we make have very serious consequences for us.

For Dean, then, we are simply in a different context, and we have adjusted accordingly.

6. Seeing the Whole Animal

I spoke up at this point to say that, although I agree generally with Dean that we are probably similarly attentive to our surroundings — though very different in what we choose to focus on — there is one aspect of our attention that seems to me markedly different.

Namely, we usually view animals as separate from us, inferior to us, almost as objects “That damn raccoon got into the garbage again last night!” I may mutter, never thinking of the raccoon as anything but a nuisance.

Whereas, as the reading brought out, prehistoric people likely saw animals as equally whole and present beings. We might speculate that a prehistoric man would have said something like… “Oh! That raccoon with the slight bend in her tail, you know the one we saw two full moons ago, she was hungry and found our meat scraps to feed her children. I wonder if she is ill?” (Not to say my prehistoric counterpart wouldn’t then throw a rock; I’m not imputing more generosity in this case, just more awareness.)

Cave paintings from the prehistoric era often depict a nuanced, shadowed, fully rendered animal, and then… a human stick figure. George Bataille (in one of our readings) speculates that this is because human beings, for most of human existence, did not perceive of themselves as the protagonists standing above and apart from their prey. They knew many animals around them to be graceful, fast, powerful, wily. They readily observed these animals undergoing their own mental and emotional processes. Surely, they were worthy of being rendered in detail.

Humans, on the contrary, are often a minimal element: the one holding the spear, the one hunting, but hardly the focus.

Field Museum 6

I drew the group’s attention to the illustrations in a book entitled “The Dawn of Man,” which I have had since a young boy. One in particular cracked me up when I pulled this book down from the shelf last week in anticipation for this meeting.

It depicts a distant relation of ours, Heidelberg man, from the Middle Pleistocene of Germany.

What amuses me about this artist’s rendering is that this primate relative is posed in a manner suggesting the Mona Lisa, staring at us in the foreground, with a line of lush trees creating depth of field behind. We can imagine that this would never have been the way that prehistoric people would have rendered themselves. It assumes an entire ideology of dominance over, and separateness from, nature, in its very composition.

Here it is. See?


Something about the modern assumptions behind his “pose” just gets to me every time I look at it.

We talked more about our relationships to animals. Renée embarrassed me by describing the elaborate growling noises and the bizarre contortions of my body that occur when I try to chase off a neighborhood cat who is terrorizing our own. I conceded that this is perhaps the closest I get to a communion with an animal, since I have to imaginatively enter the mind of a cat defending its territory to embody it.

Richard pointed out that if, in prehistoric times or any time, humans perceived themselves as “equal” with other animals, than rather than suggesting their equality, this very perception marks them as strikingly different! No other animal, he conjectured, would try to see deep into the eyes of a human so to experience its wholeness. It would simply see delicious flesh to tear with its teeth. Or a clumsy, crashing figure, smelling of fear, tufted with hair, from which to flee.

So the cave drawings of prehistoric humans might actually suggest the uniqueness of human consciousness, leading through our symbolic thinking to a kind of imagined meeting-of-the-minds with other animals (where, in fact, one can never occur).

This point led me to read aloud to the group a poem by Robinson Jeffers, which takes Richard’s point about the absurd and self-denying nature of this impulse to see ourselves as equals to other animals to its logical conclusion:


I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside

Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,

And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing. I understood then

That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers

Whistle above me and make their circle come nearer.

I could see the naked red head between the great wings

Bear downward staring. I said, “My dear bird, we are wasting time here.

These old bones will still work; they are not for you.” But how beautiful he looked, gliding down

On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly

That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–

What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.

7. Humans — Understood as Animals — Dealing with… Climate Change?

Dean spoke up to say that he is convinced, and has been as long as he can remember, that we are merely animals. That’s no problem for him to accept.

It troubles him when he thinks how humanity’s self-aggrandizement, over the past 5000 years, has led to terrible consequences by severing us from nature. This is what we do, he insisted, as animals who think they are “special”: consume resources at a high burn rate, putting the planet at risk.

Now, though, Dean argued, we must use our developed prefrontal cortex, our ability to reason, to reverse the damage we have already done. The only way to tackle climate change, for example, is to… get over our short-term thinking and self-defeating behavior brought on by our genetic predisposition.

I pointed out that there is a tension in Dean’s outlook. On the one hand, he seemed to be saying that we need to accept our status as animals, so we don’t sever our connection to nature. On the other hand, we need to “rise above” it to save the planet.

I questioned whether we really “rise above” our animal nature. Again, this seems to me a language of the past. Our prefrontal cortex, and our ability to represent our world and thoughts in symbols and verbal language, are, in fact, also part of our animal nature, are they not?

I drew on the analogy of a camera — with an automatic setting and a manual setting. Most of the time we operate on the automatic setting in our brains. This leads to some good results (“common sense,” it is often called). But in an increasingly complex world, it leads to some terrible results, very out-of-focus pictures, too. For example, one thing that is part of our “common sense” is that we tend to be suspicious of people that look different than us (automatic setting). As the world becomes more pluralistic and diverse, this hampers trust and open communication (in addition to being hurtful and unjust). So we become educated and learn to use our “manual setting” to make sure that we do not judge people harshly because of perceived differences (when you think about it, our legal system at its best is a kind of enforced manual setting — innocent until proven guilty, rules of admitting evidence, etc.). But my point is, I continued, it is important to recognize that BOTH of these systems belong to our animal nature. To “rise above” perpetrates the same separateness that Dean rightly condemns.

He conceded this. But his point still remained: how do we, animals that we are, deal with a problem like climate change?

Penda commented that, in her experience, the more simply people live, closer to the land, the more responsible they are about not damaging their environment. So by living in a small setting, among people whom one considers whole and irreducible and unique, among animals that one knows and respects in all of their wholeness too, people become more attune to living harmoniously with nature.

Yet Lucie pointed out that when we are in this present state we often cannot see the long-term, abstract consequences of our actions. Climate change, after all, would not be detected by people living simply in a small village. They would detect famine and drought (the effects of climate change), but they would not see the centuries long trend lines.

The combination of these two points struck me as a tremendous insight, which we may need to grapple with many times in this group.

We have two very different capacities as humans. On the one hand, we have our ability to live simply, attentively, and rewardingly, in a small community. I think of my mother’s extraordinary ability to be loving and present to everyone with whom she meets during her day. I think of the generosity and hospitality towards strangers often demonstrated by people living in rural settings the world over. On the other, we have the capacity to abstract from our experience, to see people as data points, and create models of our world. The remarkable edifice of science is a result of this approach — we learned to look to impersonal data, to rely on objective standards (interestingly, the values of science are, contrary to how our culture depicts them, very personal and human-centered, I would argue — truth-telling, evidence, parsimony, verifiability. But that is an argument for another time.)

The problem is that as we turn away from the more personal to our more linear or abstract thinking, our “prefrontal cortex” thinking if you will, we become ever more removed from that small village sensibility, that subjective and emotional connection to the world around us…

Perhaps, I asked, there may be a way to bridge this gap?

Perhaps there will be a way to use our “small village” sensibility to create, metaphorically at least, a link to the abstract knowledge that comes from leaving it behind? This, I would contend, is the only hope we have for combatting climate change.

Not dry argument, but personal, emotional –even, shall we say, tender? — engagement on a global scale. Is that even possible?

Otherwise, as a few of us had joked earlier in the evening, someone can feel very alarmed about climate change and carbon levels in the atmosphere — until he or she is offered the keys to a shiny  new, leather-upholstered SUV for free — Look! It’s yours and outside the door now! At this point  his or her neural networks light up brighter, I am afraid, in the desire centers of the brain than the low-level glow in his or her neural networks brought on by thoughts of climate change. We all fail this test everyday. It will have to be personal.

Again, being animals, I argued, I don’t think it coherent to think of us overcoming or “rising above” our nature. We must engage it, acknowledge it, and see the earth in a new “whole” manner, as a once stranger who is now our guest…

8. A Discussion About One of the Readings and Our Approach to Knowledge

A few members of our group, Marie-José, Setenay and Miriam, raised their objection to one of the reading selections for this month.

They were okay with the discussions of the practices of native peoples of America in The Ohlone Way and The Way We Lived. Nobody spoke to Abram’s Becoming Animal. And although Florence complained about the awkward translations, the poems largely passed muster too.

But the two chapters that I excerpted from The Cradle of Humanity by George Bataille really irritated some members.

Marie-José felt that Bataille’s tone was typical “white male”: impossibly certain, patronizing, self-involved. Setenay called him “unbearable.” Miriam shook her head in dismay.

Others in the group acknowledged that his tone was a little dated — we laughed about how he mentions his feud with Sartre at the beginning of one lecture with not a little self-inflation. Yet many of us did not find it so off-putting; you might say we discounted the “white male” obtuseness and read him for what insights he might have despite his dated tone.

After all, I argued, Batialle does acknowledge that he is not himself a “pre-historian,” and he concedes that his speculations about prehistoric cave paintings and culture are just that — speculative — right? He is admittedly just making it up as he goes. So, I asked Marie-José, is it that you don’t think he should be making these kind of speculations or assumptions at all? Or that he simply makes ones different from the ones you make?

Setenay clarified that it was not just his tone that troubled her. She said he was indicative of a larger confusion that she had with our group: she found herself torn between the two very different approaches we seemed to be taking towards understanding prehistoric people and their world.

On the one hand, when she learned that this was to be the topic, her expectation was that we would review the latest scholarly literature in the fields of paleoanthropology, paleoarcheology, etc. Then, she figured, we would be very specific about what claims we are making in terms of burial sites, tools, etc. That, clearly, was not the approach we took.

Or, she realized, we might look at prehistory as a metaphor, knowing that we are not necessarily getting an accurate picture of their lives, but using our imaginations to conjure a world that we can stand up as a kind of mirror to our own. This, she discovered in the readings and in the meeting, was more our approach.

Yet she found that Bataille’s looseness made her long for a more academic approach. Being a scientist, she wanted to get more specific in our data.

I thought this was an excellent description of two general approaches we might have taken. I explained that, although a more scholarly approach would be, without a doubt, fascinating and worthy, that doesn’t strike me as within the purview of this group.

At UC Berkeley there are no doubt in-depth courses meeting this fall that examine the prehistoric era. (Although even these scholars get it wrong and face ongoing disputes in the field, we can be sure that they are admirably getting closer and closer, with careful scholarship.)

I explained that my idea for this group is different, however. It want to use our readings each month as a kind of metaphor, a kind of mirror held up to our own present-day lives.

Any tension she felt on this I agreed is certainly valid, however — I feel it too. And I think it is a tension that we will feel often, as we read excerpts (but only excerpts, for lack of time) from different philosophers and poets and artists and writers and scholars and scientists from different historical epochs, with the aim of provoking us… instead of getting the scholarship exactly right.

(E.g. David Hume’s drawn-out epistemological argument about “secondary qualities” is not going to get as much time in that month’s discussion as his explanation of how human beings develop moral principles by way of a public language of praise and blame. Sorry, but we have to prioritize…)

To the argument that our approach might be miss certain things that a scholar would consider important, therefore, I would answer: yes, undoubtedly! But if we are seeking a rewarding and possibly life-changing alteration of our sense of ourselves as we live today, then sticking with a straightforward academic approach would, I would argue, also potentially miss important things.

For sometimes the scholar can miss the forest for the trees; in such cases he or she may only indirectly touch on the great forces working under the surface in our lives: our sense of ecstasy, of love, of sorrow, our fear of death, our deepest commitments.

And anyway, metaphors, we should remember, are not lightweight — they are a way into ourselves. They are, ultimately, how we frame the narratives of our lives. I would argue that both the academic approach and the more reflective approach are worthy.

9. Looking to Prehistory for an Updated Story of Our Origins

Setenay and I had a chance to carry on our discussion after the meeting, and by the end of it I believe that we arrived at a clearer picture of why looking at prehistory is useful.

It struck me, talking to Setenay, that even while pursuing a strictly non-supernatural approach to the important questions in our lives we still feel a need for a compelling story of our origins — if only as a kind of starting-point to our investigations.

These origin myths have important consequences.

Think of Hobbes: the “life of man” in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Think of Rousseau: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”

Both are myths of what we were like in a “state of nature,” leading to very different conclusions about how to organize society.

Now here’s our chance… What do we want to base the story of our origins on?

The latest scholarship?

A piece of fiction we make up, whole-cloth, in the vein of Hobbes and Rousseau (or Christianity or Hinduism or other religions)?

Or something in between?

We would hope that our updated story will not fall prey to the magical thinking and creaky in-group/out-group thinking of the old Bronze and Iron age myths of the major religions. (Enough with the snakes and the booming voice of God, please.) Yet we can admit that, no matter how hard we try to resist it, we will ultimately have to base even this updated story of our origins on finite knowledge. Revision will always be necessary.

Again, this is not to say that an updated story of our origins will be equivalent to all other myths, from Christianity to Islam to Wicca to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism… Some myths are outdated and based on obviously dangerous or damaging beliefs. Let’s not fall into the trap of false equivalence!

But, yes, just as science is always indeterminate and ongoing, our understanding of the world around us and our own selves will always be indeterminate and ongoing.

I concluded from this conversation that we certainly do not want to make it up whole-cloth. After all, we are hoping, with all of our limitations, to develop an understanding of ourselves that resonates with our current knowledge about the world as is. And this requires adherence to the facts as best we know them. Then we can take it from there…

So I ended up, after the meeting, feeling more conscious than before of the need to explore our “story of origins” based on the latest paleoanthropology, paleohistory, paleoarcheology. Even knowing that we are looking at it as a metaphor, we will benefit from being as accurate as possible.

In short, I think we should revisit this in another meeting! Thank you Setenay!

10. One Last Round

Brad got our attention, near the end of the meeting, as it neared 10:30 pm, by bravely stating that the evening’s discussion had left him feeling “disturbed.”

If we are only primates — animals — he explained, then he found himself feeling horrified at the prospect that he is part of this species. Considering the damage we are doing to the earth, considering the crass culture around us, then he is finds himself implicated by this particular bipedal primate species’ failings.

I roared back (he’s my best friend, so I can do that with Brad):

“Disturbed? Why is it disturbing? For all of its vulgarity and violence, the world is full of extraordinary beauty too! Just look out that window,” I said, pointing out to San Francisco. “Think of the wonders out there. The medicines that save lives. The gas which gives us a warm fireplace right now. Look at the faces in this room, how full of love and longing each is…”

“I’m disturbed. I don’t want to debate you, Tom. I am saying how I feel.”

“And I love that!” I exclaimed. “I am glad you did. But I am giving the opposite perspective. I think if we accept ourselves as animals then it is clarifying — and liberating. Finally, we can look honestly at the choices we make, the trade-offs, the responsibilities we want to take on or choose not to take on…”

Nadine spoke up to say that she felt that humans, animals that we are, have a sense of guilt and shame for what is done by our species. We are aware, she said, of the many bad people in the world, the ones doing damage or inflicting cruelty, and it makes us feel implicated. Walden supported this by observing that we are the only animal who feels remorse.

But I challenged this too (holding back the roar this time): “I think this is a case where the language you are using is archaic,” I said. “There are not “bad” and “good” people. We are ALL implicated because we are ALL capable of making poor choices, complicated choices, and all of our choices do harm to someone, deprive someone of resources, exclude someone. Think of private property — right now there are people hungry, in Berkeley, and a monopoly of violence that we assign to the State prevents them from eating because of an artificial construct called ‘property’!

“Which brings us to the value of accepting our status as animals again,” I concluded. “Once we accept that there is no escape from the hodgepodge of impulses and motivations and last stands and sudden reversals that is our brain, then — only then — can we start to talk honestly about how we want the world to look. And what we are willing to do to make it look that way…”

It was a debate that surely we will continue.

Great meeting, everybody. Much to think about. I am so thankful for the open-hearted and open-minded way everybody at the meeting participated.

As always, please make any additions or corrections you have in the comments below.

See you next time!

Notes on Our Second Meeting — EPICUREANISM


There was much good cheer and buzzing conversation as members of our group arrived, so it took some effort to move everybody into the living room to begin our discussion.

But we managed! At about 8:35 pm, with our glasses refilled with wine and the fire roaring, we began meeting #2.

1. An Overview of Epicureanism

Before we began in earnest, I thought it might be helpful (particularly for those who had not had a chance to look at the readings), if I briefly summarized the philosophy of Epicurus.

I mentioned that, along with some other thinkers of his time in 4th century BCE Greece, Epicurus believed that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, indivisible particles — which they called “atoms” (a term that would be co-opted by chemists and physicists in the 1800s, so as to become familiar to us today).

From this Epicurus concluded that our universe is entirely material.

Despite his materialistic understanding of nature and the larger universe, however, Epicurus was not a determinist. He accounted for free will by way of something he called the “swerve,” in which one atom unpredictably changes its course. (At least in a poetic sense, this notion of a “swerve” brings to mind the discovery in quantum mechanics of wave-particle duality, i.e. whether a photon expresses itself as a wave or a particle will change, depending on what we do to it. Though, we might note, the question of free will is no closer to being clarified today than it was in ancient Greece!)

But enough of these speculations about the physical world… What did Epicurus have to say about how we should live our lives?

Epicurus argued for a simple, streamlined life, with a focus on friendship and reflection.

His famous four rules are:

i. Gods, if they exist, are not relevant to human life. He acknowledged that gods may exist, but he dismissed any possibility that they might be willing to intervene, or even show concern for our needs, in any way.

ii. There is no afterlife. When we die, that’s it… Sorry if you had your hopes up for mingling with Achilles and Patroclus in the Elysian Fields!

iii. Pleasure is available to us with minimal effort. He maintained that almost all of us have enough resources available to us, already, to secure our pleasure — a little water, a little barley, and you’re good! The rest of it is a distraction, not necessarily to be shunned (that extra piece of caramel is fine, take it!) but best if understood as such.

iv. Pain is not worth getting worked up about. As for suffering, Epicurus reassured his followers and readers that it is very rarely chronic and intense at the same time — so it shouldn’t cause us too much anxiety.

This notably human-centered, pleasure-seeking, materialistic philosophy was almost lost, following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 CE and the triumph of the monotheistic traditions during the Dark Ages.

Except that it wasn’t lost entirely. It happened to get smuggled into the Renaissance — in a beautiful form! In the year 1417, a well-to-do adventurer and budding humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, set out from Italy to look for old Latin manuscripts. Poking around the library of a remote German monastery, he came upon a manuscript called “On the Nature of Things” by the Roman poet Lucretius, who had lived in the first century BCE.

By bringing Lucretius’ poem back to his circle of friends in Florence, Poggio preserved for us a faithful rendering of Epicurean thought, and one infused with great feeling. Copies of “On the Nature of Things” were passed, hand to hand, person to person, country to country, until Lucretius, and through him Epicurus, influenced such thinkers as Montaigne, Bacon, Shakespeare, Galileo…

Yet the story doesn’t end there, either.

For Stoics in the Roman era, and Christians and monotheists of all kinds ever since, the materialist philosophy of Epicurus posed a threat to their invisible orders (the “logos” or “universal reason” for the Stoics; “God,” “Allah,” “Spooky Electric,” or what have you for the religiously inclined). Hence, despite the discovery of Lucretius’ poem, the dominant discourses in our world have come down very hard on Epicurean philosophy for all these years, turning it into the caricature we know today.

As a result, it is associated in many people’s minds with a lavish meal, or with a dissolute life-style. For most of us the phrase “Eat, drink and be merry” comes to mind when we think of Epicureanism.

Escargot, swimming in garlic and butter. A rich creme brûlée…

The gout.

That kind of thing.

Yet many have managed to look past this caricature, too, and they have found themselves drawn to Epicurean thought.

Thomas Jefferson, who called himself an Epicurean, managed to slip the words “and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence. No small feat, that, with no small consequences for American culture. In recent times the ubiquitous contrarian Christopher Hitchens liked to describe himself as an Epicurean. In London, the School of Life, founded by Alain de Bouton, and The Idler, have even attempted to build institutions around the ideas and practice of Epicureanism.

So what do we think of this earliest recorded effort to develop a non-supernatural outlook on life? What did members of our group learn from reading Epicurus?

2. Does Epicureanism Lead to a Passive Life?

With the overview done, I wanted to launch the group into discussion.  So to provoke a reaction, I mentioned one aspect of Epicureanism that particularly nagged at me over the past few weeks, namely the question of whether the tenets of Epicureanism lead to a passive life.

For if we are merely seeking pleasure… and the highest pleasures, according to Epicurus, are to be had in friendship and reflection… then, if given the resources, wouldn’t we all retire to our own version of his “Garden”? Wouldn’t we all just lounge around all day sipping water, eating barley, and engaging in idle chit-chat?

What about leadership? What about risk-taking? What about courage?

What about — I don’t know — ISIS? The Keystone XL pipeline? Do we care? Or does the larger world just fade away?

Luis spoke up to say that when he was doing the reading he too sensed that there was something lacking in the Epicurean outlook on life.

He pointed out that it seems to have, as its basis, a kind of narrow, individualist point of view. Epicurus wants each person to seek to rid himself or herself of anxiety and pursue pleasure. But this ignores that we are social by nature, and always intermingled and connected with others. We care deeply about our immediate families, our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens, our world… even our biosphere. And these concerns will sometimes weigh against our private pursuit of pleasure. “For example,” Luis cried out (impressing us all with his sincerity — lucky Sara, Julia and Marina!), “I would sacrifice my own pleasure, willingly, for the good of my family!”

Renée countered that, on her reading of Epicurus, he was not suggesting that a person should act selfishly on all occasions. Rather, Renée understood him to be saying that, by simplifying and streamlining your life, you will free yourself to enjoy your choices more, whatever they may be (including taking care of your family).

On a given occasion you may want to take a risk (like singing in public) or sacrifice for a relationship (like working ungodly hours to pay your children’s school tuitions), but these actions will be available to you precisely because you aren’t confused about gods or afterlife. You will pursue your choices and your life while being clear-eyed about the costs and rewards of your actions.

Yes, you can eat that caramel, or you can give it to your daughter (as Luis surely would), because you know you don’t need it; either way, now you know that it is a choice.

Gerry compared Epicurus’ teaching to the concept of “flow” developed by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. As Gerry explained it, if you are a skier at first moguls seem overwhelming but later they become part of the enjoyment. Losing your self-consciousness and getting directly into the act of living allows you to focus on the right challenges instead of getting caught up in useless anxieties.

3. The Finality of Death

Next, we got into a discussion about how our acceptance of the certainty of our death affects our the way we live our life. Is Epicurus right that when we recognize death as mere oblivion it… loses its sting?

Yann mentioned that he wakes up every morning with a sense of enchantment at the details of the world — the leaves, the sunlight streaming through them, the seemingly endless opportunities for pleasure. He thinks that his awareness of death increases this pleasure in that it encourages him to cherish each opportunity as it comes. For example, all summer he overcame his natural resistance to putting on a bathing suit and getting wet. because he knew that the pleasures he gained from swimming will not always be available to him.

Ken, too, suggested that knowing that our time on this planet is finite gives our lives more value. He mentioned a poem that made a strong impression on him — about a rare white orchid that blooms only once a year…

I objected to this line of reasoning, though. I explained that for the life of me, so to speak, I just can’t appreciate this notion that the certainty of our impending deaths gives our lives more meaning… that the flower which blooms only once a year is all the more exquisite for it, etc. etc.

To me, life is exquisite while it is lived for the obvious reason that I am experiencing it. Anything outside of this consciousness experience is, really by definition, the least interesting thing in the world to me. So death’s limitation of my experience does not enhance the quality of my experience in any way, it merely… limits it. How about a thousand white orchids blooming, every day? I have no problem with that picture.

I read the following line from Nabokov to the group:

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”


This brief crack of light, I argued, is all we have. I understand that, and like Epicurus I don’t expect more. But I would be quite happy to see it extended into a vast sea of light. Immortality would be wonderful. I can’t imagine feeling otherwise.

Walden suggested that he was more bored when he was young for the very reason that he felt an abundance of time ahead of him. Now that he is older, and he feels more scarcity of time, he is never bored. He suggested that the approach of death has added greatly to his interest in life.

I responded that for me the dynamics are quite different. When I was young I too was more often bored, it’s true. Yet I don’t think this was because I felt an abundance of time: rather, I suspect it was because I didn’t know what to do with my time! As I have grown older I am happy to report that, like Walden, I am never bored, but that’s not at all because I sense the certainty of death approaching me. In fact, I resent death because I can now fill time better, giving more love, paying more attention to details, doing more thinking about the complexities of the world. Let it go on! Death impinges on the abundance of time I crave.

To me, then, death does not lose its sting in any case, whether we praise it as a motivation and a limiting device (as Yann, Ken and Wadlen do) or dismiss it as a mere state of oblivion (as Epicurus did). It is still… terrible, awful… a source of (what an apt phrase!) mortal terror.

Manon agreed with me on this, sharing that she fears it and does not welcome it on any terms.

4. More on Dealing With Death

This got us into a discussion about the toll of death on the living.

Epicurus urges his followers not to worry themselves with thoughts of death, since after all it will not trouble us at all when it comes (since we will be gone). But he seems to leave out the fact that, for those still living, the death of loved one is devastating. Devastating. Again, to Luis’ point, his philosophy seems geared to the perspective of each individual alone, but doesn’t consider our entanglements with others.

Dean cited findings that show that, on average, people’s baseline happiness bounces back after the death of a loved one within a matter of months (this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “hedonic adaptation“). “So I’m with Epicurus,” Dean announced, “We shouldn’t worry about it.” (Dean admitted that he had dressed up as Epicurus for Halloween, and spent the evening in a toga ridiculing the flights of fancy of religious people… Hey kids, look, it’s Epicurus… Run! He doesn’t fear death!)

I pushed back on this. “Dean,” I said, “I think you are being a little cavalier, aren’t you? Yes, people’s self-reported “happiness” might bounce back, but that particular data stream is only a measure of one aspect of their experience. Even in cases where a person facing grief can find some equanimity, the death of a loved one will often reorient his or her outlook on life in a fundamental way, right? Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. A wife may never regain her former ambitions after the death of her husband, or a father may find himself oddly drawn to stories of loss and heartbreak, seeking to help those in need. Or those who have lost someone close to them may begin to cherish their friends and family more than ever. These changes may not be recorded by a study of self-reported mood or ‘happiness.’ But that doesn’t mean that they don’t count!”

Jeanne emphasized that, as a hospice nurse, she has witnessed many people who are near death coming to accept their fate. The ones who suffer the most, she said, are the people still living.

Karoline mentioned that she felt jealous, sometimes, of religious people whom she has witnessed recovering from something as devastating as their own child’s death, based on their belief in an afterlife where they will meet that child again. Dean said he didn’t wish for that flimsy tissue of lies in his life; he didn’t feel jealous of them at all but would rather face facts honestly.

I agreed with Dean… and I wondered if Karoline would really wish that kind of mythology upon herself despite its false comforts. Just to be difficult I gave her an hypothetical… “If I told you that I believed strongly in little dust-men floating at the ceiling of this room,” I asked, “and you could tell that they gave me a great sense of reassurance that everything would be okay (because they were hovering in the form of a triangle! or some such claim), would you really feel jealous of that consolation? Religious convictions are just as absurd as the dust-men, of course — only more familiar and protected by taboos from mockery. So why should their false consolation be any more worthy of your jealousy?”

Karoline clarified that even if she could not conceive believing in dust-men, or any of that supernatural stuff, her point was that it amazed her how comforting such fabrications can be. At least on a temporary basis, they are extremely effective in providing a buffer to the emotional havoc that experience can bring. In other cases, she added, she has witnessed parents without such beliefs unravel completely when faced with the death of a child.

Marie-José had a different story to tell. She explained that in his work her father used to attend the death-beds of many people in their region in Southern France. She has always remembered that he told her once, quite in passing and without further explanation, that the people who took an untimely death the most hard were the nuns in a nearby nunnery. So for these nuns anyway, religion did not provide the consolation it promised — or not enough.

I had witnessed the same, I mentioned, when my grandmother faced death. She had always been very adamant that we would all meet Jesus when we died. (And if we had not accepted Him into our hearts, she had warned, Jesus would shake his head and say, “I don’t know you.” My sister and I used to reenact the telling of this to scare each other.) As my grandmother lay in her hospice bed, however, she showed a great deal of anxiety. Contrast that with my grandfather, who did a few years later. He had never bothered too much with thoughts of an afterlife. Instead he sang fake Puccini arias in fake Italian during his last days.

In the end, faced with these contrasting stories, we concluded that whether you believe in an afterlife or not perhaps plays little role in whether you have anxiety about death… Who knows, maybe there are other factors at play, of which Epicurus and the faithful aren’t even aware?

Walden mentioned, in this respect, that after the sudden death of his mother, he and two of his sisters were able to absorb their loss over time, while the third, who had not been able to reconcile with their mother while she was still alive, still feels anguished by a sense of irresolution.

5. Do We Extend in Both Directions Outside of Our “Brief Crack of Light”?

Looping back to Luis’ comment at the beginning of the meeting, I mentioned that it seemed to me that Epicurus gets it wrong to focus so singularly on this life, this “brief crack of light,” as Nabokov so memorably put it.

Our concerns do extend past our own life. For surely we care deeply about our immediate loved ones even after they die. More than that, we care about our ancestors, our colleagues, our heroes, our friends’ parents, our neighbors. We research our genealogy and our language group. Yet it’s not even restricted to our own personal connections. We care about history. For example, as Yann knows (we have an endless debate going on this), I care deeply about the ideas behind the American experiment in representative democracy, about Lincoln’s understanding of human fallibility as the basis for this experiment (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…” or as he meant to say… to the extent that evolution has provided our particular species of bipedal primate with the capacity to see the right…).

Likewise, Yann and Dean and many in our group have already made abundantly clear how much they care about the future, even after they personally will be gone. We care about the effects of climate change, for example, on generations to come. We care about children that we don’t know personally and will never meet.

So our concerns and interests extend into the “eternities of darkness” on either side of us, into the past and the future.

Can we then live a kind of… modified Epicureanism?

Can we adopt Epicurus’ useful outlook in terms of our own lives (letting go of fables, grudgingly accepting that death is final, living simply, recognizing that pain will be manageable), but extend a more active and engaged outlook towards other lives around ours?

To do this, though, we will need a new way of telling stories. For the impact of another person on each of us, in most cases, is based on our living connection to that person. It can be unnerving to realize how little we care about the deaths of people we don’t know, for example. (No doubt that’s why statistics are often said to be “mind-numbing”!) We need something to bridge this gap, to expand the area of our interest.

How many people can we actually get ourselves to care about, looking back and reaching forward?

Once we do care for people, for how many years out can we expect this care to reach?

At what point will our willingness to devote our energies to something beyond our own brief life begin to flag?

In other words, what are the limits to our capacity for love, primates that we are, with brains and bodies adapted for the more narrow purpose of replicating our own DNA?

Does love have limits?

Maybe not?

6. Art and Death

This brought up the final area of discussion. Walden started us off by stating that he has come to the view that art does not need religion, but religion needs art. In other words, without the awe-inspiring Catholic cathedrals with their flying buttresses, without the aching beauty in the cadences of the Muslim morning call to prayer, without the rich colors of the cave paintings of Ajanta, religion would lose its power.


“Yes!” I said. “But that is true for the secularist, materialist, non-supernatural viewpoint as well, isn’t it? We need a new art!

“One that supports a scientific and naturalist angle into love and loss and the whole gamut of experience in between. We need an art that expresses our blissful sense of belonging with other people. We need an art that expresses sorrow and rage and confusion in the face of suffering, so that even people we don’t know can be seen as more than a statistic.”

I noticed Renée looking at me sideways, as if to say, “What are you on about now, honey?” But I kept going…

“As it is, art is experienced, more often than not, as separate from meaning, in a realm of its own. Sure it can stun us with beauty, or shock us, or make us wistful, but it usually doesn’t inspire us to action. We don’t expect it too either.

“That’s fine. I am all for art for art’s sake too. I distrust propaganda or heavy-handed meaning in art as much as anybody. But maybe, just maybe, in this context of asking ourselves how to live, art can do more?”

At this, Claudine shouted out: “Why do we need a new art, Tom? When I see time-lapse photos showing the melting of ice in the Arctic, I feel ready to take action. When I see a documentary on polar bears leaving their hunting grounds, I don’t need more than that. What do we need art to do in addition to that?”

“Well, you may be unusual, Claudine,” I answered, “I think most people need more than photographic documentation, more than the blunt facts of the matter. They need engagement. Again, not propaganda, but at least a direct acknowledgement that love is at the core of the work, as well as pain. That we aspire to preserve good things, gentle things, kindnesses, ambiguity, gratitude. It seems to me that most secular art does support these values, but it does so almost haphazardly. Is there a place where it could be done more intentionally, just as traditional religious art has done, for the purpose of increasing understanding, growing love, reducing suffering?”

Heléne emphasized that it all comes down to storytelling. As a marketing executive, she explained that she knows this is always the key to conveying information. (But is it only better marketing we are talking about? That struck me as depressing. Isn’t there more at stake here? An aspiration to love one another in a more lasting way? Isn’t that beyond a marketing plan, even while it demands it?)

Walden said that although he didn’t want to be cynical, he didn’t believe any art could make a difference in people’s actions on issues such as climate change. He expects us to continue emitting carbon into the atmosphere, until the younger generations end up taking to the streets in mass protest. No art could change that. Dean agreed and spoke of how ephemeral our emotional states are, our feelings of empathy most of all. They won’t last, he insisted.

“But certainly it’s worth a try!” I said.

Someone asked provocatively: “What good can a painting do, Tom? What has art ever done?”

I stood and hung my arms out to the sides. “Are you kidding me? When people walk through the Uffizi Gallery and gaze at paintings of Christ being crucified, I think when the painting works they look right through the dogma of religion. They see a human being suffering unjustly. They see his mother and friends in agony, helpless, as they look on. These images stay with them, lodge in their hearts, one might say despite the religious indoctrination that limits and squelches their meaning. Art can change the world. Has. Over and over.”

Renée mentioned that while hearing a countertenor sing a Bach Cantata last Sunday at a concert in Berkeley, she felt changed in a way that is lasting. Or staring at Monet’s haystacks a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum.


Sometimes you can’t put it into words, but you are expanded in a way that you hadn’t been before the experience, and it alters how you act in the world.

7. Winding Up

It was getting late so we had to end. I realize, writing this, that in two meetings we have already set a high bar for what we do!

In our first meeting, we came to the realization that we need a new origin story, to supplant those of religion, one that accords with the latest science of primatology, anthropology, neuropsychology and prehistorical archeology.

Oh, and in the second meeting we realized that we needed a new art that allows us to reach into the two “eternities of darkness” — i.e. reach into the past and the future — surrounding our brief lives. We need to live with Epicurean simplicity and modesty, yet, nevertheless, with the assistance of art, learn to dream, grandly and ambitiously, outside of the narrow experience-frame of our own lifespan.

Alrighty then!

Got our work cut out for us.

See you all next month when we meet on the Winter Solstice. More on that to come.

As always, if you remember something from the meeting that I overlooked (and there are surely many things) please add it in the comments!

Notes on Our Third Meeting — A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION!



(Three girls running arm-in-arm down a hill in the fog. Can anything be more beautiful?)

So — the report for those who couldn’t make it.We found one another in the dark and misty parking lot and headed out through fog-shrouded trees. We were quite a sizable group, but perhaps we were outnumbered by the huddle of  “new pagans” and Wiccans we passed along the way. Oddly, they were singing Christmas carols (and burning sage) while looking out in the direction of Mt. Diablo.

Up a muddy hill and we reached the top. The sky glowed ever brighter as kids and adults mingled. More and more boys acquired muddy palms as the minutes passed by.

A few minutes after the sunrise (undetectable except for the brightening in all directions), I announced that I had a “sermon” — to some (surely well-deserved) mockery from my wife, who was wearing a fetching pink wig.

I spoke of our human “triumph of scale” (as opposed to the usual phrase, the “problem of scale”). In other words it struck me, sleepless in the night, how wonderful it is that we can scale up or down almost at will (up, for example, to the orbit of our planet around the sun… or down to the smallest moments of pleasure while sliding in the mud). This capability allows us to keenly appreciate what are, after all, cosmically irrelevant events (she smiled at us just before she closed the car door — did you see that?!). Or, when needed, it allows us to recognize those little events to be trivial compared to the big things in life (we were born! We have air to breathe!).

I suggested that we should try to demonstrate our own “down here” triumph of scale by reproducing the orbit of the planet around the sun with our very bodies — the “solar system” that counts most for us. With this in mind, I asked the parents and grandparents to cluster in the center of a patch of grass, and the kids ran around us like so many planets…

Okay, it sort of worked… It was fun anyway to see the kids running in circles — which was, in a way, the point, right? Which was a more important orbit at that moment, Earth’s or Felix’s?

Then Nathalie improvised some simple and gorgeous songs to the four elements — wind, earth, water, fire. She swayed and sang in a flowing tie-dyed dress and opened our hearts a little more.

There was a lot of chaos, many cups of coffee and hot chocolate and a great deal of — what’s the word? — fellowship. Affection.

Then people begin peeling away, or rather, sliding, away. Vanishing into the fog.

It was memorable in its own way. Christopher biked from his boat in Emeryville, which I will always remember.  For a moment I thought he was wearing nothing but plaid boxers — which struck me as especially cool. But they were shorts.

Let the longer days begin to do their work on our vast oceans and bring us Spring. Let love flood our hearts with the brightening days.

Enjoy the holidays everybody. See you in January.

Notes on Our Fourth Meeting — THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION


At 8 pm we gathered over wine and cheese and bread and a delicious pesto pizza that Don and Anne brought. At 8:30 we moved into the living room to begin our discussion.

1. An Overview of Our Reading on the Scientific Revolution

I started by giving a rough overview of some of the materials that we had read for the meeting, particularly those focusing on Galileo and Francis Bacon. (I thought it would be worth it to take a few minutes to do this, for those who had perhaps not had a chance to get to all the reading.)


Galileo Galilei, 1564 – 1642

So we began with Galileo.

For more than 2000 years before him, I reminded the group, from the ancient Greeks and Romans on through the Middle Ages, natural philosophers had used their vaunted power of reason to generate universal principles. As a kind of afterthought, they would sometimes seek to demonstrate these principles by way of experiment.

Galileo respected this more traditional, deductive approach to science.

But he also employed a new approach.

Namely, Galileo began to perform experiments and collect data first, and from these experiments he would derive a universal principle – which he would then confirm by way of reason.

Put this way, this is only a difference in the order of steps, right?

Reason → Experiment


Experiment → Reason

So what?

In fact, as we all know, this change would have profound ramifications for the world.

For experimental data come directly from nature (and not from the error-ridden presuppositions of the mind).

Data are accessible to anyone.

Data cannot be imposed from above. Data may surprise and astonish and offend, and they are not afraid.


Francis Bacon, 1561 – 1626

In this way, Galileo inaugurated a new era in thinking, by his use of mathematics and thought experiments (and even a few hands-on experiments) as a way to investigate the world.

Francis Bacon did something important too. He was the first to attempt to articulate, in a cohesive fashion, what we recognize today as “the scientific method.”

A contemporary of Galileo, Bacon was not a scientist, but rather he was… a lawyer. His importance to the development of the scientific method lies, accordingly, not in any of his discoveries, but in the way that he formulated a new approach to inquiry.

Bacon advocated starting with nature, and generating exhaustive lists of observable facts, or “histories,” not unlike someone preparing a case for court.

Based on these histories, he argued, certain questions could be framed, and – importantly — experiments conducted, from which conclusions about the world might be drawn. Bacon’s approach is one of induction (as opposed to deduction), trying to understand nature from the bottom up, as it were.

It turns out that Bacon had a big influence on the course of science, and much of it after his death.


A meeting at the Royal Society, Somerset House, London, 1843

He died in 1629. But in 1662 a group of his admirers formed the Royal Society, with the explicit goal of advancing Baconian principles. And over the centuries that followed, the Royal Society proved to be a formidable engine of scientific discovery. It was, for example, the venue that fostered Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, more than two hundred years after its founding.

2. Tom’s Presentation: Are the Values of Science All We Need?


Overview of the readings done.

At this point I pivoted to make a more personal point.

Why did I want us to read on Galileo and Bacon, anyway? I explained to the group that, to my mind at least, this is not dry, dusty history at all.

I have the strong sense that the underlying values of science, so long obscured to the public by the productions of science, are now, some 400 years later, more important than ever.

For many years, I pointed out, science has meant… stuff. The steam engine, the cotton gin, chloroform, the screw propeller, the telegraph, the telephone, the machine gun, the airplane, central heating, penicillin, nuclear fission, the computer — you name it, the changes wrought on our lives have been overwhelming.

As a result, science has been (and to a large extent, remains) synonymous, in many people’s minds, with technology. Out of a sense of caution, people have kept everything personal and emotional and sacred in their lives away from it. They have the reasonable urge to protect those things that they associate with deeper meaning from these baffling technological changes. (See C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 essay, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution for a discussion of the division between science and the humanities that runs through our education system as well.)

But now something new, something big, is happening, I think.

And we are lucky enough to be alive to witness it.

After some 400+ years, the saturation of science into our world has reached the point that even non-scientists are beginning to grasp the value of the scientific method as more than… stuff, but a meaningful perspective on life itself.


When you think about it, in fact, the values of science are pretty much exhaustive of the values of a well-lived life.

I mean, let’s consider the threshold requirements for doing science…

Everyone is equally welcome.

Doubt everything.

Tell the truth.

Rely on evidence whenever possible.

Use parsimony (Occam’s razor) to distinguish between contrasting interpretations.

Accept the demand of verifiability (or more accurately, falsifiability).

Insist on public confirmation of private results (submit to peer review).

Feel comfortable with uncertainty.

These, I would suggest, are not merely a batch of coherent values – they are exactly the values we need for a good life! They pretty much will do it for us, if we are willing to live by them.

Oh — except they leave out one, perhaps the most important: love.

Which, I suggested, we can add, like so much gold dust, sprinkling it over the top of the others…


Doubt. Parsimony. Truth-telling. Turning to evidence.



What more do we need?

Nadine spoke up first to say that the scientific method reminded her of how children play.

They explore first, without taking a principled approach or even making a hypothesis. They bend an object, twist it, taste it, bite it, and so on — until it breaks. So perhaps the inductive, bottom-up method behind science is innate in us, and it has only been blocked for so many millennia because of pre-conceived notions (which adults make up and force upon their children)?

Don suggested that, perhaps, until recently we were ill-equipped cognitively to apply ourselves in the rigorous, doubting, highly attentive manner that science requires. He referenced research (Don — can you give us a name of the study?) on the toll that our poor diet took on our capacity to engage in the processes of higher reasoning. “When all you are eating are stems and roots,” Don said, “You can’t do much more than get through the day.”

Ken brought up the work of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn to call into question the idea that the underlying values of science are so important and effective after all. Kuhn famously argued in his work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, that progress in science is not as open-ended and driven by discovery as we imagine it. Instead, as Ken explained to the group, Kuhn details how the prevailing paradigms in each scientific field are highly rigid — and consensus is strictly enforced by scientists upon one another. A culture of groupthink prevails right up to the moment when the data contradicting this paradigm (let’s say the classical mechanics of Isaac Newton) make it no longer defensible, at which point the paradigm shatters and someone else picks up the pieces to build a new paradigm (e.g. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity). If Kuhn’s theory is true, Ken suggested, then it should cast doubt on the idea that humans are engaged in some high-minded pursuit of truth by way of the scientific method.

Setenay also mentioned that there are always questions of resource distribution, exclusion of unwanted groups, academic politics, flawed assumptions in basic models, and many other factors that make science less of a pure, universally accessible, truth-seeking enterprise than my remarks might suggest. “Pure science,” she offered, “may incorporate many of these great values you mentioned, Tom. But very few scientists, in my field of environmental engineering, for example, practice this kind of pure science. A whole slew of personal, social, economic and even political considerations inevitably enter into our work, our projects, even into our models and interpretations of data.”

Anne, who is a science journalist, gave a rousing defense of the ideal of science, saying that despite corruption and bias she believes that science does prevail in the end. And if you are rejected from one journal, or squelched in one area of research by the prevailing “paradigm,” there will be other journals, other resources, over time. Truth will out. The scientific method prevails.

3. Is Science More Open to ‘Miracles’ Than Religion?

I was with Anne. While fully admitting that my view of science is romantic (I see science through the rose-tinted spectacles of someone who reads about it, but doesn’t do it), I felt compelled to defend it too.

In my attempt to do so, I presented the following “thought experiment.”

With as much drama as I could muster, I began…

“If Jesus of Nazareth were to descend from the ceiling, this moment, and hover a few inches above this… this… dias…” (I was pointing to a small, circular coffee table, marred by stains from years of tea mugs) “…what would we do?”


Yep. This guy.
In mid-air above the coffee table.

My voice began to quiver with ersatz rapture as I continued…

“You see the light, streaming from His head. The white robe, rippling around Him… He gazes at us with fierce eyes…

“I have no doubt — do you? — that we would be open to accepting Him, despite not being religious!

And here’s why: after we got over our initial shock, we would receive this visitation of Jesus of Nazareth as observable data, just like all the rest of the data in our lives. Considering how remarkable this vision was, we would, of course, be absolutely curious to know more about it! We would want to examine it in all its particulars, have teams of scientists conduct studies on it, converse with it (if possible!), record the event on HD video, etc.

“Once we had managed to establish that there were no hidden projectors or magicians tricks involved (in other words, once we had assured ourselves that it was based on evidence; could not be falsified; that there was no more parsimonious explanation available; etc.), we would be happy to consider the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth’s Second Coming really happened in a living room in Berkeley, California, at a meeting of the Old New Way, in the year 2015.”

(Most of us anyway. Maybe Dean would be a hold-out?)

“For something would have changed our (scientific and therefore always provisional) worldview: the arrival of the convincing sense-data of a floating figure in our midst, a creature previously unrecorded in the annals of science!

“The appearance of Jesus, in this case, would not represent a miracle; we would not be succumbing to a religious point of view. On the contrary, it would represent a fact!” (Mind you, this would take multiple, double-blind studies on the phenomenon, peer-reviewed in respectable journals, before we could call it, even colloquially, a scientific “fact”. With that we are with you, Dean.)

“And here’s what is really interesting, I think. I am convinced that a group of religious people would be more likely to look aghast at this apparition, run away, scream, curse it as the work of the Devil, than us scientific-minded folk. Okay, okay, maybe if this Jesus just so happened to act and look precisely in the manner that they expected then they would accept Him faster even than us. (Surely most evangelical Christians in the U.S. would accept that fair-skinned, blue-eyed, goldilocked guy we all know so well with minimal friction.)


“But if he did not match their preconceived picture, I think that this floating figure would be seen as a terror, a threat. I suspect that their lack of curiosity about the material world, their lack of familiarity with the inductive approach of Bacon et al. would hamper them from exploring the particulars of this event standing before them. Indeed, they might face a kind of psychological paralysis, or traumatic event, considering that their private certainties would be overturned. Jesus is not supposed to look like this! Jesus would not appear now, here, in this random living room in Tom and Renée’s house on a Thursday night! I didn’t imagine it this way.”

When I was done, Renée spoke up to say that this “thought experiment, whatever it was,” struck her as… “not useful.” She wanted to move on.

Taken aback by her vehemence, I briefly made an effort to explain why I had brought it up:

“But, but — what I’m just trying to say is that those who have absorbed the values of science are actually more open to facts in the world, even including seeming ‘miracles,’ than religious people!”

But it wasn’t working. She gave me a look as if to say, “Are we done?” So we moved on.

4. Dean’s Assertion of Scientific Facts — and His Frustration with the “F-ing Idiots” Who Refuse to Accept Them 

At this point Dean could no longer contain himself.

He argued that it was all well and good to admire the values of science, the doubt, the provisional nature of its findings, and so on.

But there are certain findings that are really irrefutable and should not be questioned. Scientists are their own worst enemies when they constantly talk in a muddled way about the uncertain and provisional nature of scientific facts, because it feeds the idiocy of the deniers and nuts who subscribe to mystical and religious pabulum of all kinds.

“The universe began approximately 13 and a half billion years ago. Period,” Dean stated. “It started with the Big Bang. If you deny these facts, then you are a fool. So my question is: what should we do when we encounter people who live with a completely different worldview which denies the scientific consensus on things like this? Or even worse, when they deny things with direct consequences… like, say, the relationship between the release of carbon into the earth’s atmosphere and climate change? What do we do, ignore them? Try to convince them? I want to put that out there for the group to answer.”

Heather argued that we would not be able to convince them because their “attachments” align them otherwise. Their emotional and personal needs position them on the other side of the science community in these cases, and therefore they select only those findings that fit with their own narrative.

Yann mentioned a study (click here for the link) in which it was shown that, in the United States at least, it is actually the more highly educated, in areas of the country in which majorities deny the effect of human activity on climate change, who are the most inflexible and adamant in their position. This is counterintuitive, he acknowledged, but it is revealing too. More education, more facts, he said shaking his head, will not sway opinion.

I tried to reframe the argument — as a way of answering Dean’s question of what we can do when faced with such obstinacy. As Heather and Yann are suggesting, I agreed, we can’t meet their certainty with our certainty and have any hope to convince them.  They have a narrative in their heads about God’s glorious plan for the earth. And our own certainty about the damage being inflicted on the planet by the burning of fossil fuels isn’t going to change that one bit. That kind of approach is a losing battle from the beginning. And we will lose it every time, I argued, because with Dean’s approach we have already ceded to them the frame in which we are talking!

When you meet one certainty with another certainty, you are tacitly accepting a quasi-religious claim to what knowledge is.

Instead, I argued, we have to get it through their heads that there is no capital-T Truth, and none of us will ever have certainty. There is only evidence… probability… and yes, degrees of consensus, which in the case of scientific inquiry really means nothing more than “the consensus of a many people who have looked carefully at this question and checked their work against one another’s.”

We have to ask them: what’s your method? Private revelation? Appeal to authority? We have to get them to try to defend their method against ours, and insist that ours is more public, more open-ended, and ultimately more humble.

Dean is concerned that we weaken our argument by resorting to talking about the preponderance of the data and provisional claims — that is, when we use the language of science. Yet I would argue that we should actually double-down on this kind of talk! We need to insist that our claims for, say, the age of the universe or the danger of carbon emissions in the atmosphere ARE provisional and uncertain, but they are also THE BEST HUMANITY CAN CURRENTLY DO.

In fact, seen this way, our framework, the scientific worldview, encompasses theirs (all of their talk of God’s glorious plans and the Garden of Eden, etc., are equally viable as research subjects, just as much as anything else). All we are saying is that if you can convince others who are willing to check your facts and your reasoning, then even your religious-infused interpretation of the temperature trends of the planet has a fair shot! But you can’t refuse to subject your judgments to scrutiny, and then turn around and say that all those interpretations and judgments which have been subjected to scrutiny are no more valid than yours.

Nadine brought up, in this context, her concern that ultimately those of us who are not scientists (or even if scientists, are not specialists in the field in question), are compelled to take much of what we read on “trust” — or even, dare we say it, “faith.” So what is the difference, she asked, between the faith of the religious person and the faith of those who are willing to accept scientific findings?

Luis pointed out that the difference is one of willingness to revise if necessary. The person who accepts the age of the universe to be 13.798 billion years old because he or she understands that it is the scientific consensus (based on measurements of electromagnetic waves, “red-shift” etc.), will be willing to revise this to 14 billion years, or even, hell, one day, if the scientific consensus shifts accordingly. We are admitting the possibility of error. So our “trust” or “faith” is in a method, not in a particular answer.

I was tempted to bring back the Second-Coming-of-Jesus thought experiment here, to illustrate once again the willingness of scientific-minded to admit error. But one glance at my wife and I knew better.

5. Do the Monsters Unleashed by Science Rightly Undermine Its Appeal?

At this point we branched into a different discussion.

I felt it was important to acknowledge the serious costs inflicted on humanity and the earth by technology, which is, after all, made possible by scientific method. We can praise the underlying values of science all we want, and perhaps they have done much good (particularly in the fields of health and agriculture). But then we have the threat of nuclear extinction, a planet which may be heated beyond what is sustainable for human life, the acidification of the oceans, and so on. Don’t the various productions of science discredit the whole project?

My own answer to this was that you don’t reject love entirely, just because of the harm done in some cases by… divorce. There are bad consequences of some good things, but those consequences can and must be distinguished from the thing itself. (Marie-José, having no idea what I was talking about, heckled me from her position on the other side of the room, “Love makes divorce? What?”)

Yann was more hopeful that the monsters will be managed. He spoke of an “arc” of progress, which has been demonstrated in many fields, according to which a new practice or method “self-corrects” itself over time. (I would like to see some study on this, Yann — please send us a link.) If he is right, then not only can we distinguish the good of science from its more unfortunate productions, but we can expect science to get it right over time and reduce the number of errors it makes along the way. Though Yann admitted that there is a risk that it won’t self-correct in time, and we will face extinction.

Heather sighed somewhere in this discussion, “Oh, I have had about enough of this…” (She can’t stand talk of extinction, annihilation, apocalypse.)

6. Where Love Fits In With Science

We had fallen into the trap, so common in our culture, of discussing the values of science merely in terms of the effects of science. As if science must be cordoned off to its own sphere.

So, as it was getting late, I steered the group back to the conversation that we had at the beginning of the meeting. Do scientific values apply to other aspects of our lives? Should they?

Marie-José spoke up to say that she felt science may be able to describe the biological and chemical processes of love, but it can never capture the actual experience of it. Therefore it doesn’t satisfy as a worldview — we need poetry and music and other unquantifiable depictions of first-person experiences to guide us too.

Dean said that he believed that all of it is measurable and quantifiable — even our love for our children, which can be reduced to an evolutionary impulse to protect our DNA.  And yet this still leaves us feeling these things. Science does not drain life of meaning because of its descriptive and explanatory power.

Heather offered her view that we need illusions. That the raw and ugly truth offered by an exclusively scientific outlook would be too bleak. (She was still recovering from all that talk of annihilation and extinction.)

I countered Heather’s point to say that I did not think that truth, when exposed, is necessarily raw and ugly. Her comment reminded me of my problem with John Gray’s book The Silence of Animals, an excerpt from which we read for the meeting. Gray suggests that scientists and liberals generally are trapped in a myth of human “progress,” and that without this myth we would be bereft. As I read him I kept thinking, “No. Not true.”

I don’t have any conviction, any myth, of progress! (Do you?) I see us as animals, with a  drive for consumption and even hoarding of energy and resources. Our intellectual capacities are no doubt fascinating, but limited. In the end, we may very well sabotage the only planet we inhabit (as Dean memorably put it, humans ‘shit in their own soup and eat it, again and again!’).  Yet I’m not bereft. To my way of thinking, the lack of absolute meaning does not lead to a nihilistic worldview. When you let go of your myths you soon come to terms with all the changeable, small meanings in your life, and you get quite attached to them without making a myth out of them.

But the point of Marie-José that love’s subjective experience lies outside the reach of science did resonate with me, I added. I had talked at the start of the meeting about sprinkling the values of science with the “gold dust” of love — but what if this is a combination that just doesn’t mix well?

How do we mix the third-person “objectivity” of science with our first-person subjectivity? How do we know when to move from one habit to another? What’s the trigger, for example, during an argument with a friend, that we might use to move from our impartial assessment of the evidence and the application of the rule of parsimony (in scientific values mode with him)… to a decision to simply, silently, hear our friend’s hurt, not with the aim of recording it as data but instead just hearing it (love mode)? How can science tell us when to make that switch in our approach?

7. Wrap-Up

Close to the end of the meeting Gerry shared his own experience as a cardiologist, circling back to the skeptical view of the scientific method. Although he recognizes the great achievements of science (after all, the entirety of his work is based on them), he has also seen over the years how much the scientific consensus is shaped by distortions in the health care market, by the whims of editors in scholarly journals, by trends in the field. He has learned to adapt to the point that five years from now he expects to be doing very different things than he does now, some of them in direct opposition to current practices. That was a useful cautionary note from the field.

Luis mentioned that famous quote from Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” He said that he thinks of the scientific method along these same lines: flawed, but the best we have.

By the end of the meeting I, for one, realized that we have a long way to go before we determine that the values of science are all we need for a good life.

They are surely valuable (I’m still enamored of them!), but perhaps they are more applicable to social, external, even political settings? Perhaps at our more private and internal moments we need another source of guidance?

Interesting, that back in November we found Epicurus to be too individualistic in his philosophy. For example, he struck us as too focused on the insubstantiality of his own death while not acknowledging the enormous suffering and loss that his death might cause in the lives of others (and, similarly, the suffering and loss that the death of friends might cause in his life). And here in our next discussion we find science to be perhaps too outward-looking in its outlook! It looks to public confirmation, evidence, verifiability, but it leaves out the subjective and unique experience of each person.

Onward. More investigating to do in the months ahead.

It is such an honor to be part of this open and searching (and loving, gold dust and all!) group.

See you in February.

Notes on Our Fifth Meeting — THE ENLIGHTENMENT


We gathered at 8 as usual. For my birthday, Florence brought me what she called a “vine,” in a giant pot. Upon reading the card I realized that it was a grapevine — “Grenache blanc.” Thank you, Florence!

So all I need is a vineyard now. Everything has a beginning, right? What did Voltaire say about how we need to “cultivate your garden”?

Anyway, at 8:30 we moved into the living room to begin the Old New Way.

1. Tom’s Presentation: the Counter Counter-Enlightenment

I started us off by stating that I’m just going to come out with it: I agree wholeheartedly with the ideals of the Enlightenment.

I accept the claims of Enlightenment thinkers as to the universality of human aspirations and values — even across disparate cultures and ethnicities. With Voltaire, Diderot, et al., I encourage the questioning of authority and tradition. I’m all for using reason, whenever we can (or rather, to the extent we can, cognitively limited primates that we are), and relying on evidence wherever possible. I really don’t have any problem with these ideals at all.

It’s true that in the centuries that followed the Enlightenment, all the way up to the present, the brute facts of European domination and exploitation of the rest of the world should give us pause. This history alone, understandably, raises the question of whether the Enlightenment has a shadow side.

But I would argue that this troubling history is more the result of the inevitable power dynamic unleashed by the discovery of the scientific method in the West, which provided untold opportunities for mendacity and greed to Europeans. I think it is a mistake to see in it a some deep flaw in Enlightenment values.

I would even go so far as to say it is the corruption of Enlightenment ideals — largely through recidivistic tendencies towards ethnic and racial and religious solidarity — that fostered the terrible litany of horrors we ascribe to European and American power: the slave trade, Colonialism, imperialism, enforced segregation systems like apartheid, and so on and so on. Rationalizations and pseudo-scientific language were (and still are) used to prop up these horrors, but they are misused in this way.

In a word, I concluded, the history of European and American exploitation of people all over the world is ugly, but it is unfair to use this history to condemn Enlightenment values.

Nobody said anything. So I added a little more…

Furthermore, I told our group, someone espousing Enlightenment values does not lose touch with the beauty and mystery of life, as so many Romantics and no-nothings and New Agers insist!

In Isaiah Berlin’s article we read how Vico, Hamann, Herder and others (associated with the Counter-Enlightenment) offered up contasting values, which they argued were overlooked by Voltaire and his ilk: self-expression, individuality, emotional engagement, passion, mystery, ritual, folkways.

“But I don’t think these are mutually exclusive!” I exclaimed. “We can hold fast to the values of reason and evidence and the scientific method, while also celebrating more emotional, subjective, idiosyncratic experiences of all kinds! Moreover, those of us who subscribe to the ideals of the Enlightenment can surely still condemn the abuses of one sub-group over another (White over Black, men over women, Afrikaners over Africans), even while we continue to cherish those unique cultural traditions which do not oppress or violate universal human aspirations and values. Nothing wrong with hanging stockings at Christmas, lighting the Menorah, lighting some sage and going on a Shamanic journey! We can take the best of the Enlightenment and still live weirdly and wildly, can’t we?

Kristen pushed back a little. She suggested that is very easy for those of us in power to embrace the “rightness” of our approach, while picking and choosing which local customs to honor or reject. But what if other cultures and communities, outside the purview of the Enlightenment, have truly incompatible aspirations and values? People in those communities might care less for, say, the rule of law, equally applied, when compared to their concern for the preservation of honor of the family or tribe as a whole. Who are we to insist that the Enlightenment is better as a guide to their lives than their own customs?

I answered Kristen that although I agree this is a challenging question and humility is in order, I always come back to the bedrock conviction that in fact there are universal aspirations for human beings, at least on a basic level. For we are all animals with similar neurobiology, right? Good health, the absence of violence, predictable social relations, the availability of adequate resources to learn — I believe that any customs or traditions that impinge on these basic aspirations for a given group of human beings are problematic. Some members of a given community may resist Enlightenment values, of course — e.g. some men in Afghanistan may want to keep their wives and daughters out of school (and will throw acid on their faces if they insist) — but despite their wishes, the community as a whole would experience a net increase in well-being if these women were treated equally.

Jenna spoke up to say that the usefulness of Enlightenment aspirations is indeed measurable, to some extent. And supported by science. When a U.N. agency develops a program for a country or region, it does so explicitly on the basis of studies showing quantifiable facts, such as frequency of childhood death, average lifespan, infection rate, incidents of violence, levels of education, etc. These are understood to be of interest to all human beings, universally.

Yes, Kristen said, but that’s exactly it, isn’t it? The United Nations is a product of the European Enlightenment. We justify our own preference for these values on the basis of reason, evidence, and practices of quantification inspired by… the Enlightenment. It’s circular!

2. The Question of How to Convert People to the Cause of the Enlightenment

Yann said that he believed that we were all, more or less, in agreement that we prefer the values of the Enlightenment. (Even Kristen’s pushback suggests an urge to objectivity and doubt that reflects the Enlightenment; just as Diderot’s dialogue between a Tahitian chief and a European, one of our readings for the month, raises more questions than it resolves.)

The question, Yann suggested, therefore becomes a practical one: how (and when) can we convince people to think our way? Don cited a study he had read that showed that in hundreds of cases, when presenting people who deny the claims of science with irrefutable data proving the very assertions that they deny, these people are seldom convinced (Don — could you send us the link to this?).

Gerry asked whether the solution may lie in early childhood education. Perhaps, he said, this important responsibility should be taken away from parents and given over to the state? (He echoes Plato here, and Thomas More and Lenin, and many utopian thinkers through history). Away from their parents’ prejudices and failings, children could learn habits of science and reasoned debate, peaceful conflict resolution, and all the rest that would lead to a harmonious world.

Yann rebutted him with a single question: What about the love? What about love, Gerry? I think I saw a tear gleaming in the corner of one of Yann’s eyes. The big sap.

Manon, who runs a preschool, said that in her experience a collective setting can be a loving and nurturing environment, so love is present. On the other hand, she agreed with Yann that a sustained connection with the parents is, in her experience, one of the most important factors in bringing up a happy and harmonious child. So this could pose a problem.

Many others in the group, including me, rejected the notion of separating kids from their parents entirely. After all, who would then have the power to write the curriculum and plan standards? we asked. How do we know that they would get it right? You get all the usual problems with centralized planning: someone corruptible and fallible has to make decisions with imperfect knowledge.

3. A Brief Tour of Our Own Private Utopias

We got into a more personal discussion, at this point, about each of our versions of utopia. I offered that if I could change one thing it might be… the abolition of cars. If we had, say, horses instead, we would take more time with each visit to friends or family; we would be more focused and present with each excursion away from our home. Our ties would become more local, and our sense of community as a whole would be enhanced. Yann offered that, counterintuitively, this change might actually increase the carbon problem to have so many horses passing gas. He mentioned a recent study which showed that 18% of the carbon in the atmosphere is currently generated by cows’ digestive processes.

Manon’s utopia was to eliminate the cell phone. This would enable us to be more attentive to the immediate world around us. And even more, it would preserve us from the onslaught of information that threatens to engulf us every day.

Walden said that his utopia would be to improve himself rather than the outside world. He would engage in a project of continual self-correction. I wondered if he had a mistaken idea that human beings are perfectible? In fact, I offered, we will always have psychological and emotional systems that are directly antagonistic to one another (attachment vs. need for independence, self-interest vs. group identity, etc.).

Dean said that he is much more comfortable with talking about dystopias than utopias.

I added that I would like to live in a world where we have more ability to feel. I am already quite an emotional person (I tear up at least once a day, and my family laughs at me), but this actually seems a tiny fraction, to me, of what I would like to feel. Considering the amount of pain and also beauty that we encounter on a given day, shouldn’t we be weeping and, alternately, experiencing joy, almost continuously? Kristin said that, on the contrary, she feels that she is already too emotional most days; she would rather reign herself in more effectively.

Renée insisted that she detests this kind of group question (“What’s your utopia?”). But in the end she offered one as well: she imagines a society that provides ample support for every family to raise their children (as in some Scandinavian countries that provide year-long maternity leave, universal preschool, etc.).

4. The Information Age… on Overdrive

At some point we got into a discussion about our current era of information overload. Manon mentioned that she feels overwhelmed on a daily basis with the amount of Facebook links, texts, news stories, entertainment options, etc. Many of us agreed.

I said that this is, in my view, a direct outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Once we began examining the world from a naturalistic viewpoint, breaking questions down into separate pieces, looking to evidence, collecting data, we lost the simple and clear fables that our former delusions and magical thinking provided. It used to be that we thought our leaders, our heroes — writers, artists, warriors, inventors, taboo-breakers and activists of all kinds — were leading us to glimpse eternal Truths, leading us farther and father towards contact with God or Transcendence. But now we see that there are materialist explanations for almost everything we do. Biology dictates many of our actions, including our impulses to love and war. No matter how closely you pour over the text, Hamlet and Lear won’t point you to any answers, only more doubts. Hemingway’s spare manly language is just that: a pose of efficiency covering over the abyss of meaninglessness. Joan of Arc was probably crazy.

The internet has created an “information age on overdrive,” I said. And it is endlessly fascinating, piquing our curiosity (addicting us with its unpredictable dopamine releases), but it is also endlessly horrifying, a vacuum of meaning.

To this extent, I admitted, I do sympathize with counter-Enlightenment thinkers. I took this occasion to read aloud a poem by William Blake:

Mock On Mock On Voltaire Rousseau

Mock on mock on Voltaire Rousseau

Mock on Mock on tis all in vain

You throw the sands against the wind

And the wind blows it back again

And every sand becomes a Gem

Reflected in the beams divine

Blown back they blind the mocking Eye

But still in Israels path they shine

The Atoms of Democritus

And Newtons Particles of light

Are sands upon the Red sea shore

Where Israels tents do shine so bright


We are with Voltaire and Rousseau here, I suggested, throwing our sands against the wind.

While Blake, still enchanted by his illusions of transcendence and ultimate truth (he would say “Vision” and “Imagination”), sees “beams divine” and Israel’s shining tents.

I miss this way of looking at the world!

Yet I would not decline more knowledge either, I added hastily. I would still bite the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil if given a chance. I have no wish to will myself into ignorance. So where are we left? Does the Enlightenment demystify our experience, after all, despite my protestations at the beginning of the meeting?

Gerry agreed that, in his perception, people seem increasingly lost in a sea of meaningless information, especially the younger generation, raised in the age of iTunes and Twitter. They have no bearings. Even popular music is increasingly devoid of heroes or a coherent narrative. He worries about the glut of information and demystification of everything. He personally holds himself to an identity as a healer or helper of humanity (hence his work as a cardiologist), but this is an act of sheer will.

Jenna emphasized the importance of rituals, in the face of modern technology and information overload. She told us how she lights a candle now, for every meal with her children, and she finds that the little flickering flame has an effect of centering and calming them all during meals.

Others in the group said that they did not feel that there is any problem at all. In effect, they find that they can straddle both sides of Blake’s poem; they stand with Voltaire and Rousseau in their determination to throw “sand” at the wind, seek knowledge and test propositions; and they stand too with Blake in his ability to see the sands thrown back as beams divine, gleaming, translucent, spectacular. Don said that he has no problem waking every morning and reminding himself of whom he loves and how he wants to show up for them, while not needing any absolute meaning beyond this.

5. The Question of ISIS 

At this point we got into a brief discussion about whether the followers of ISIS, or the Islamic State, are aligned with William Blake and Hamman and Herder and other critics of the Enlightenment, i.e. whether they are followers of the Romantic, counter-Enlightenment tradition. Certainly the Muslim teenagers who fly to the Mideast from France and England and the U.S. to join the jihad are choosing a form of ignorance (denying the secular culture of science and the Enlightenment in favor of the certainties of radical Islam). They are, arguably as a direct consequence of this choice, filled with an ecstatic sense of purpose (well, at least until they arrive on the scene in Syria and face the gritty reality).

Dean interjected to caution us from falling into the trap of becoming obsessed with this rag-tag group, who pose no serous threat to our lives. The way that ISIS cropped up in our discussion wearied him.

Fair enough, I said. Though I pointed out that he couldn’t accuse us of invoking them in the usual, fearful way, so as to justify a war-footing or something like that. After all, we were actually admiring them for their enthusiasm! (And for nothing else, let it be said.) At this Dean laughed and agreed, but he wanted to make sure we weren’t overstating their threat or their appeal, for that matter.

6. Something Really Hard to Tackle 

As we ended, I suggested that in the last two meetings (on the Scientific Method and the Enlightenment) it struck me that we had positioned ourselves on the side of… knowing better than others.

We even talked, both months, about the best techniques for converting others to our position!

Nothing wrong with this — part of what we are doing is figuring out what we stand for (and ISIS is wrong, dammit). But still, it stood out to me that we were defining our outlook on the world in a rather confident way so far.

Perhaps, I asked, we should choose a topic for April about which we fully acknowledge our lack of any expertise?

With that in mind I proposed that next month I would like to reflect on the theme of “love.”


The very word, outside of familiar contexts like weddings, Valentine’s day, birthday cards, or bedtime with our kids, makes us squirm uneasily. Despite how pervasive the world is in our culture, we are surprisingly unclear on what love really means to us, and how much we want to prioritize it in our lives. What are the various manifestations of love available to us? How important are they?

So — I will find some readings and perhaps artwork for us to mull over in advance of the meeting. Any suggestions are more than welcome.

Another great discussion. Lots to think about and mediate over.

See you in April!

Notes on Our Sixth Meeting — LOVE


We gathered on a clear evening as the sun set over the Bay.

Rosé and red, bread and cheese, strawberries. A good feeling filled the room.

At 8:30 we made our way to the living room to begin our discussion.

 1. A Meaningful Life

I launched us off by connecting the question of love to the broader question that our group has been grappling with: how to live a meaningful life without the certainties and received wisdom of religion.

With this in mind, I read aloud a quotation I had come across recently in a review of Life After Faith by Philip Kitcher:

“Each meaningful life is distinguished by a theme, a conception of the self and a concomitant identification of the goals it is important to pursue. That theme should be autonomously chosen by the person whose life it is.”

Albeit the language is clunky (a “concomitant identification of the goals it is important to pursue,” really?). But even so, this statement made me pause when I read it. I had to put the magazine down and ask myself:

So what is the “theme” of my life, then?

To my surprise, I found that my answer to this was clear and immediate: love.

As I confessed to the group, in recent years I have discovered that the theme of my life has become… trying to love better. The “concomitant identification” of my goals, therefore, is… that I want to be:

more receptive,

more emotionally available,

more fully present,

in all of my interactions with other people, whether they be family, friends or strangers.

In other words, I want to see each person I encounter as a whole person and not in merely an instrumental sense.

I hope to get better at this, day to day, year to year, until I die.

Yet, I admitted, I am troubled, too, by a nagging sense of the incoherence of this theme and the sheer impossibility of these goals!

For by pursuing any one kind of love to its limit – say if I aim for the altruistic, empathic love of Gandhi or Florence Nightingale – I will in fact limit my capacity for other kinds of love — for example, my availability to my family. There are unavoidable trade-offs between the various kinds of love.

So despite my yearning to “love better” and see everybody “as a whole,” despite my sense that this is my chosen theme at this point in my life, I don’t really have the foggiest how to pursue these things.

I ended on this somewhat downbeat note.

Yann spoke up to say, charitably, that he didn’t see any problem at all in my choice of theme!

He explained why this was so by way of contrast to his own. His choice of theme, he ventured, is a little different than mine: he wants, above all, to explore the “gray zones” in life — those places where you won’t find any easy answers, where you feel unsure and confused, where paradoxes abound.

Accordingly, Yann’s “concomitant identification” (I can’t help myself — it’s too tempting to use that clunker) — where was I? — yes, Yann’s concomitant identification of his goals is to seek out and navigate these gray zones. So he felt quite comfortable hearing about my troubled quest to “love better” because he recognized in it… a worthwhile gray zone to explore.

He urged me to embrace the unresolvable conflicts in love.

“Don’t get hung up on whether you really ever learn to ‘love better,’ Tom!” he counseled, “Just trying to love better is the important part; as soon as you do, you are already there!”

With characteristic fervor, Miriam resisted the whole notion of living a “meaningful life” in the first place. She couldn’t stand the quotation, and not only for its awkward phrasing.

“What’s all this talk of meaning?” she asked. “Just live!” she exclaimed. “Don’t worry about the meaning.”

When it comes to love, Miriam added, her understandings of it are very different from those expressed in my writing on Eros, Parental Love, Compassion, Commitment, and Reverence (See the last entry on Five Kinds of Love). If prompted, she would come up with an entirely different breakdown of the forms that love takes, she insisted.

For example, where I describe the love I feel for my children as a kind “intoxication” akin to that of romantic love, she feels nothing of the kind.

“I suppose I love my children,” she said — as the room burst out laughing. “But — no really, I’m serious! — I don’t experience it that way! I only surmise that I love them from the nervous feeling I get when one of them doesn’t return home at the expected time. In my daily interactions with them, sorry, but I’m not constantly thrumming with a sensation of love.”

Walden said that he thinks it is all far more simple than we are making it. The “theme” for Walden, if he had to say, would consist of some far more practical advice: “Don’t be an asshole.”

He noted that this imperative has very different ramifications, depending on whether you are talking to his spouse over the kitchen table or trying to merge lanes on the freeway. In both cases, however, it contains meaning enough to him. Try not to be an asshole, and the world opens up to you.

I said, “But aren’t you setting the threshold for love pretty low, Walden?”

“No,” he answered. “It’s quite a challenge, really.” (Though he pulls it off very well, I would observe.)

Our dear friend Yann, ever the analytical engine, took this opportunity to break the group’s conversation down into three levels of love, which he suggested might together build a… magnificent palace of love.

  1. Don’t be an asshole.
  2. Try to be empathetic to others.
  3. Make a conscious choice (“autonomously chosen”) to frame or thematize your life in terms of your commitments and concomitant goals (ha! I got it in), which are a form of love.

Ken insisted, however, that this #3, at least as expressed in the quotation I read at the beginning of the meeting, pointed to an unfounded value-judgment that he could not condone.

To Ken, a meaningful life does not require that it be consciously, “autonomously chosen.” After all, he pointed out, plenty of people around the world go through their days in a moment-to-moment or spontaneous way without consciously framing their theme and their goals. Are their lives less meaningful? He would doubt it.

(Ken didn’t mention it, but I think that implicit in this question is a devastating socio-economic critique of all this talk of “meaning.” Many people in the world simply have to work too hard just to survive, and therefore don’t have time for this kind of language of conscious choices. Though I’m not sure that is true. Many of them do make conscious choices — to their neighbors, to defending their country, to providing resources to their families. They may not talk about it, but they do live it.)

If I remember correctly, Yann still stood his ground.

Based on personal experience, he told us, he believes that, regardless of the question of its rarity or not, this effort at making conscious choices does add to the depth of person’s experience.

For example, he told the group, he personally reveres the natural world. He thinks often of the fragility of our blue spinning planet, in a dark and vast universe. Therefore, in his career choices Yann has strived to position himself in a field in which he gets to protect and defend the Earth and its environment. And he has found that by consciously dedicating himself to protecting its environment — an act of love — he finds more meaning in his work and life.

I supported Yann in this with still another example of the rewards of making a conscious choice, based on my experience… I mentioned to the group how I have, to my horror, witnessed wedding vows in which the bride and groom vow to be true to each other “so long as it brings each of us joy” – or some such contingent agreement. I say “to my horror” because, to my mind, the power of the traditional wedding ceremony is that it frames the choice as one for that is precisely not contingent, i.e. one that will last forever“To have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” goes the traditional vows. The couple speaks them aloud, before their community, and so, I think, deepens the meaning of their relationship. When I married Renée (at Millerton Point on Tomales Bay) I guess you might say I took this to heart. At a certain point in the ceremony I leaned back and shouted at the top of my voice that I wanted the gulls, the grebes, the leopard sharks, the egrets, the coyotes, the foxes, hell, the rock cod, all the living creatures — and of course all the friends and family present — to know that “Renée Cole is my woman, and I am her man!”

This vow has been important to me. I was and am 100% in.

In view of these kinds of experiences in life, I agree with Yann that there is more to love than just the effort not to be an asshole. Not that this is not important! (Yann hilariously commented that while he may be strong on #3, the thematizing part, he is very weak on #1; he acts like an asshole on a regular basis. So although the above ground design of his palace of love is spectacular, the foundation needs a little work…)

2. But Is Love Enough?

The Beatles famously said it’s… all we need. Nothing you can say that can’t be sung. Etc.

In his lovely song, “I Threw It All Away,” Dylan announces:

“Love is all you need.

It makes the world go round.

Love and only love…

It can’t be denied!

No matter what you think about it.

You just won’t be able to live without it.

Take a tip from one who’s tried.”

If you have never heard this song, here it is:

“Yet how do you propose to go about it, Tom, if you want to do more than not be an asshole?” Walden asked.

“What would it mean, in practical terms, to have love as the primary goal of your life?”

“Good question,” I said.

Would I walk around Berkeley, barefoot, tending to anybody and everybody we meet, giving out hugs and back massages and, I don’t know, candied orange peel? Cold cash?

I admitted, as I did at the outset of the meeting, that I wasn’t at all sure how to answer that.

Despite having “to love better” as my chosen theme, I am not at all sure how to enact it.

I mean, it’s plainly not enough to walk around giving out good vibes. We have all met those people who are — what shall we call them? —  I’ll say… mad huggers. Those people who take every opportunity to gaze into your eyes soulfully and talk about how beautiful it is, this moment we are sharing, together; who offer massages and soothing words where other people offer only a tight smile and a wave.

Aren’t they practicing love?

Why, then, are they often so irritating?

What is the relationship between loving better… and using your discretion?

Between loving better, loving more authentically… and holding onto your capacity for critical judgment?

Interestingly, it only gets more complicated the more you follow the thread of love.

Gray zones indeed.

Florence read a passage from a book (I didn’t catch the writer’s name — Florence?), in which the “art of loving” is set alongside the “art of working,” the “art of playing,” “the art of dying,” all kinds of other themes in life. For Florence, love – though important – is only one of the many interests we pursue in our varied lives.

This started us talking more broadly about all the different values we may have, aside from love.

Somehow Larry Ellison came up, as the antithesis of someone dedicated to being loving. (We acknowledged that this may be totally unfair — a cruel cartoon version of a much more complicated man. Sorry Larry, but it was useful to the discussion to make you the bete noire of the moment).  For Larry Ellison, former CEO of Oracle, apparently, work is of supreme importance.




These goals may be in conflict with the pursuit of love, but they are legitimate values too, are they not?

Renée made a valiant effort to distinguish between the money-driven achievements of Larry Ellison and someone like Steve Jobs, who looked at work as a creative act with the aim of improving people’s lives. But, even if we go with Steve, the point still stood. Why should we emphasize love, and only love, over all the other competing aspects of our lives? Florence and others were adamant that love is most decisively not all we need.

“So you want to put love in a box. Tie it up with a nice ribbon,” I said despairingly to Florence. “Give it a place on the shelf alongside the other aspects of life, be they money or power or a good wine. Well, I reject that! I want to say that love is of a different nature. That it trumps these other concerns. I’m with the Beatles and Dylan here: I think that, on the deepest level, all we need is love (well, and bread and water — hey, we are veering back to Epicurus!).

“And I say this not as a piece of dogma, but based on experience. Don’t we find that our most rewarding and rich experiences come from love and connection to other people? If so, then why can’t we non-supernaturalists assert a goddamned priority to love?”

Nadine countered that love comes in many forms. Pablo Picasso may have treated the women in his life roughly at times; indeed he may have even acted like an asshole. But he created stunning paintings and sculptures that in their own way were acts of love. Why should we insist that he conform to one restrictive idea of how to love?

I held my ground. “But I do want to say to Larry Ellison, or Pablo Picasso, that they are missing out. I want to say, calmly, even to Picasso, ‘Hey, man, um… I have an idea for you. Maybe try painting a little less… and loving more? We get it: you are very, very good at that. You find great satisfaction in putting paint on a canvas and ordering the world that way. Many people in the world appreciate your talent. Nothing wrong with it. Yet, you know what Pablo?, you may find a little more harmony in your days by turning your attention to the people in your life, to your friends. By trying to be more kind and consistent to the people who love you. Take your kid on a walk to the local park. Talk to her. Listen to her.”

I can’t resist linking to this song by the Modern Lovers here… Consider it a light diversion.

3. Can the Secular Outlook Ever Be Morally Prescriptive?

My advice to Picasso of course prompted a storm of derision (I had broken the unspoken taboo that prevents secular individuals from making moral judgments). That’s ridiculous! was the general consensus. People are all different! Who are you to judge!

“Tom, it’s a village!” cried Renée, “Some are the healers and the lovers. Others are the messengers. Some are the architects. Even others are the warriors. You can’t ask them all to subscribe to the same creed of love. Even though, yes, love is important to everybody.”

“But if it is so important, and you acknowledge that, why can’t we non-supernaturalists ever prescribe it for others?” I asked. I explained that this is one of the things that I admire in religious traditions: their courage in distinguishing right from wrong, and their boldly stated prescriptions for the good life. The ancient fables and in-group mentalities and general silliness that come along with religions make them prohibitive to me (and worse, dangerous in my opinion). Yet I don’t want humanity to lose the capacity for a collective moral language. And I fear that the secular world is losing just that.

We can pursue intellectual questions all we want. We can discuss Epicurus and the Scientific Revolution, and it is all interesting and provocative. But can we not then take it a step further and say: How about all of us trying to love more, to love better, in the next week! 

Can’t we do what churches and temples and mosques and New Age gatherings the world over do every day: ask ourselves to be better people?

If we can’t say that love is at the core of experience — and should be valued over, say, bungee-jumping, or late-night meetings focusing on innovative financial investing strategies, or wacky self-expression in the form of Burning Man campsites — then this group is no more than an idle intellectual salon. And maybe that’s what it is, but I want it to be more! I want us to venture into the gray zone of asking those questions traditionally reserved for religion:

What is good?

What is bad?

What brings us into harmony with the world around us?

What takes us further away into confusion?

Lucy spoke up to say that such talk is, ironically, becoming all too familiar in business settings. Corporations, having consumed all forms of subversion , tamed rock n’ roll and punk and softened the idea of anarchy itself into cute little dress-up games, are now launching a new imperial venture: they are moving in on love.

Facebook has an internal slogan, Lucy informed us: “Ship love.”

As in: ship out the product of love to the consumer.

Google, of course, has: Don’t be Evil.

(I mentioned the Obama campaign’s slogan, “people-centered, data-driven,” which I had liked.)

Capitalism, run amuck, freed of the shackles of religious disapprobation, is merging the free-for-all of our acquisitive, consumerist society with the traditional language of love and morality.

“Yep. Love is a currency,” said Nadine, shaking her head.

We all agreed that this was an icky development.

I mean, Nike can tell me to “Just Do It,” fine, but I don’t want them to tell me what to do, thank you very much. If we non-supernaturalists, we secularists, don’t push ourselves into this uncomfortable “gray zone” of morality, then the ground being given up by religion will be occupied by profit-seeking corporations!

This is what I am talking about. There is a vacuum of sensible moral talk in the world, and it is filled by the worst kind of passionate intensity (You can’t help but think of Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming.)

I turned back to Walden. “Don’t be an asshole is the fall-back position of every culture, every civilization! It is simply the Golden Rule, stated negatively. Of course we don’t want to be assholes, Walden. But then neither does anybody who wants to play a socially acceptable role alongside others, anywhere in the world. There has got to be more than that.”

Gerry spoke up to say that he used to think that peace and harmony and love were morally prescriptive. He thought that everything was leading to an awakening. But then the world took a different turn, starting in the 80s. Now he isn’t so sure. He is aware of choosing to live in Berkeley among people who share his outlook, but he is less encouraged to try to persuade others to follow along. He had the look of a jaded idealist, like a Russian liberal democrat in the late summer of 1917. Once we believed… but now we know better.

Setenay remarked that much of these differences are cultural. In Turkey, for example, children are devoted for life to their parents. They would never criticize them to a friend or resist visiting during holidays. When she first moved to the United States, it shocked her to hear people talk of becoming “bored” with their parents!

I heard all this. And I acknowledged that is undeniable that there are many different forms and manifestations of love, emphasized in different ways in different cultures. Yet, I told the group, I still do believe that there is an undercurrent that is consistent through every culture, and in every person (except for psychopaths and the sorts of “malignant narcissists” Walden talked about). There is a human longing to connect in a complicated and ongoing way with other humans, to share affection and even bear the burden of one another’s suffering. I suspect that this can be brought out but must be fought for, defended, encouraged, in a moral language. Much in the way that parents try to shape their children’s outlook.

Call me crazy.

Ken mentioned that he is not so concerned about encouraging his children’s experiences of romantic love or Eros, since that will come naturally. He is more concerned, as a father, with encouraging their capacity for empathy.

But why not encourage, persuade, cajole grown-ups in this direction, too? We are not talking about compulsion, here. We are talking about standing for love.

Is that going too far?

The feeling I got from the group was that it was. Leave us alone. Don’t moralize.

I ended by arguing that if the world’s main ethic is “don’t be an asshole” it will soon devolve into everyone for herself. A blue spinning orb of people who are vaguely polite and disconnected and restless.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that seem to be where we are headed?

But let me end on a high note.

At one point Manon spoke to how she manages her day care in Berkeley with an emphasis on humane values, love, compassion, understanding. She said that this causes some conflicts with other administrators, who sometimes accuse her of being too “soft.” But she believes that it is okay to lose some opportunities, or even profit, in the name of love. This was inspiring to hear.

4. Where We Are Now

As it got late, people began to leave, as the discussion still ambled along. Usually we have a clear moment when we end the meeting, but this one sort of disintegrated — into a happy buzz of people talking in clusters, gathering their bags, waving a friendly goodbye at the door.

So I didn’t get to talk about the plan going forward.

My sense, though, is that we should pause. We have had wonderful conversations, every one of them. I have found them very valuable and inspiring. I hope you have too. But May is a busy end-of-school year time, and I think we should hold off on meeting.

Let’s pick this up in the fall!

In the meantime, please continue to share with our group, by email or on,  any reading you are doing or experiences you are having along these lines of meaning and non-supernaturalism and love and the scientific method and all the rest.

If you send me a post, or a poem, or a reading suggestion, I will put it up on the blog.

Thank you everybody!


Notes on the Seventh Meeting — THE WORLD WITHOUT GOD


It was great to meet again after our long summer away.

At 8:30 we made our way to the living room and began our discussion.

Tom’s Presentation: Charting the Future of the Non-Supernatural Outlook

I started us off by referring to a chart that I had worked up on a whiteboard.

While reading Nietzsche and Gray over the last month, I explained to the group, I had found myself wondering how we might more clearly distinguish their respective positions.

That urge led me to wonder how we might visually represent the differences between Nietzsche and Gray’s and others’ expressions of non-supernaturalist thinking… and then how I might coordinate their various positions in relation to my own.

I quickly realized that I would need to devise a chart for this.

Here’s what I came up with:


The Chart

I explained that there are two axes: x and y.

The x, or “morality,” axis has POWER at the far left and LOVE at the far right. (I could have alternatively labeled it SELF at the far left, and OTHERS at the far right).

The y, or “worldview,” axis has SUPERNATURALISM at the top and NATURALISM at the bottom.

These two axes, crossing each other, generate four quadrants.

Quadrant I

In quadrant I at the upper right, we have at the maximum SUPERNATURAL, maximum LOVE position, who else but… Jesus. (I know it’s sort of cheating, since Jesus is himself supernatural, but it seemed the right place to start due to the familiarity of the message.)

Also in this quadrant I we find MLK, Ghandi, and Pope Francis (I put the Pope a little farther back on the x-axis, since there are so many power-based interests in the Vatican, and of course in Catholic dogma). President Obama is in this quadrant as well (though he is lower on the y-axis, since his religious attachments are thin, a matter of pragmatism and deep respect for civil rights history, as far as I can tell). He is joined by the Democratic Party as a whole.

Quadrant I is the location of much of the heroes of history: driven by supernatural ideals and commitments, but driven in the direction of helping humanity live better, more freely, more harmoniously.

For fun, I called quadrant I “The Best of Religion.”

Quadrant II

In quadrant II, at the upper left, we have ISIS occupying the position of maximum SUPERNATURAL (on the y-axis), paired with maximum POWER (on the x-axis).

ISIS is joined (am I being unfair?) by Ted Cruz. Some of his policy positions reflect a desire to help humanity, and we may presume that he has some limits to what he would do for power, so he drifts right along the x-axis a little towards LOVE… but not much. George W. Bush, who famously let it be known that God himself told him to invade Iraq (and cause, thereby, massive suffering), is there as well.

Hitler appears a little farther down the y-axis. His supernaturalism takes an idiosyncratic form, involving dreams of Aryan supremacy mixed with the Christian myths of perfectibility and the Rapture (read, Third Reich), but he lands in this quadrant II too.

I called this quadrant “Shit Ideologies.”

Quadrant III

At the lower left we have the corner of maximum NATURALISM and maximum POWER.

No illusions, just take what you can, baby!

A number of names came to mind: Pol Pot, Genghis Kahn (or was he supernaturally-inspired? not sure), the Marquis de Sade, Ayn Rand, Machiavelli. A little out from the corner we have Dick Cheney, Napoleon, Stalin, Lenin (this last one falling a little farther along the x-axis: he meant well, after all, though at a huge cost). I even stuck Mick Jagger in this quadrant (for the savage way he worked his way through women without concern for anyone else’s feelings).

Trump belongs here pretty obviously (he claims to be religious but his life shows approximately zero evidence of this). Finally, Vladimir Putin, as a KGB operative for many years, belongs in this quadrant, I think. His embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church is, by all accounts, merely a matter of political expediency.

This quadrant I named “Selfish Assholes.”

Quadrant IV

Where maximum NATURALISM meets maximum LOVE, at the lower right corner, we get some of my personal heroes: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a committed nonbeliever who fought for suffrage for women); Abraham Lincoln (creeping up the y-axis for his use of religious language in the Second Inaugural, though privately a nonbeliever whose worldview embraced the need for trade-offs and the tragic sense of loss); and of course Nelson Mandela who, though a Methodist in name, was not concerned with supernaturalism at all. Rather, his commitments were based on his concerns for human dignity and raw experience.

Others in this quadrant include John Lennon (he penned the anthem of this quadrant), Gloria Steinem, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson (riven with contradictions but still… the Declaration of Independence), Mark Twain…

This quadrant I called “The Old New Way.”


So, having laid out the chart, I then proceeded to lead the group in some brief thought experiments based on it.

I pointed out that there are some possible historical forces, producing what we may call “vectors,” that will operate on this chart over time.

A Vector Towards NATURALISM in the Arts

For one, I suggested, literature and the arts strike me as moving, over time, down the y-axis.

At the top, closer to SUPERNATURALISM, I put Dante, Prince, Blake, Yeats, and barely, Dylan. It would be easy to add many more artists to this list if we give it a moment’s thought: Homer… Masaccio… J. S. Bach… Tolstoy. There are so many gifted writers, musicians, painters and the like, who have, through the millennia, espoused a supernaturalist worldview.

Interestingly, at the center of the chart we find Proust and Shakespeare. Vast as their imaginations are, they make it nearly impossible to discern in their work a permanent move in any of the four directions.

As we move into the 20th and 21st centuries, however, we arrive at the artists who speak to the human experience in this time: Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, etc.

I have placed them all the way down at the NATURALISM base of the chart. But also note that they are square in the center of the POWER/LOVE axis, since they are more observers than moral actors.

In summary, I explained to the group, artists seem to hover at the center line, but are moving steadily down along the y-axis to enable an ever-more accurate understanding of the world (Shakespeare’s holding “the mirror up to nature”).

A Vector of “Good” People Down, from Quadrant I to Quadrant IV, as Love Becomes Secularized

It is my impression, I continued, that just as artists are moving downward, so are our heroes.

The selfless, self-sacrificing acts of, say, a Joan of Arc, or a Mother Theresa, are more commonly found among non-supernaturalists, in the present day. Think of the doctors who risk their lives to serve refugees or Ebola victims. Think of the environmental activists and social activists who fight for clean air, clean water, racial justice, gay and lesbian rights. Think of any college campus. These battles are more often unfolding in secular settings — rather than under the guise of supernaturalism.

I predicted, therefore, that over time this trend will continue, and quadrant I will empty out, carrying the Democratic Party with it. Its fervor will transfer to quadrant IV, the “Old New Way.”

Welcome, I would say to those former supernaturalists. There’s plenty of room for you in the natural world!

A Vector of “Bad” People Up, from Quadrant III to Quadrant II, Due to the Uses and Abuses of Ideology

This was the scariest part of my presentation, in my opinion.

What we are seeing in Europe and the United States, and has long been the case in the Middle East, I argued, is that so called “bad actors,” i.e. those people who seek power and dominance instead of love and connection, are gravitating towards ever-more-inflexible ideological commitments.

Franco in Spain served his ambitions for power by fostering the ideologies of Nationalism and Religion. As already seen, Putin has formed close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church for a similar reason. Lost, alienated young men across Europe find themselves drawn to join ISIS, as a means to channel for their rage, their urge for sexual conquest, their desire for adulation and status — broadly speaking, their lust for power.

In the U.S. of course the GOP long ago learned to harness voters’ self-interest and even hatred by way of a religious yoke: disgust for people of different races or orientations or circumstances can be made more politically effective when harnessed to the causes of “religious liberty” or “sexual purity.”

My point was that just as the “good” people closer to the LOVE side of the x-axis are moving down to NATURALISM, there seems to be a movement of “selfish” (or broken, confused, alienated, angry) people on the POWER side up to an increasingly committed SUPERNATURALISM.

This does not bode well for the future, as the two diagonally opposed quadrants (II and IV) already have begun to speak past each other. Communication breaks down when our frames of reference are so wildly different.

Which Quadrants Do We Hope Have Faded Away…When We Look Back 200 Years from Now?

I asked the group to consider the following three scenarios:

  1. The one that actually appears to be happening. Quadrants I (“Best of Religion”) and III (“Selfish Assholes”) may fade away over the next 100 years or so, leaving an increasingly polarized world, in which a largely well-intentioned, but fragmented, secular world faces a fierce and weaponized supernaturalist threat.
  2. The atheist’s dream. The entire SUPERNATURAL (that is, the entire top, I “Best of Religion” and II “Shit Ideologies”) of the chart gradually disappears. So the world still has plenty of people dedicated to their own self-interest (even disproportionately at the expense of others), but they no longer justify it by way of out-dated and silly supernatural claims. And then there are many in the world who do good without god. In other words, quadrants III (“Selfish Assholes”) and IV (“The Old New Way”) battle it out.
  3. A non-judgmental utopia. Or the entire POWER (that is, the entire left side) of the chart disappears. Amazingly, humanity continues to find ways to reduce violence and even hostility.  We end up with those who are supernaturally inclined doing wonderful things in the name of God (or gods, as the case may be), while those of us who have no truck with “gods” or “spirits” do wonderful things in our lives as well. Everybody’s happy, at least until the sun explodes.


The question I have regarding scenario #2, the atheist’s dream, I confessed, is whether our heroes just might end up less effective, without recourse to a supernatural entity! This is hard to admit, but it is a concern.

I sometimes do wonder whether MLK and Ghandi, for example, could have done what they did without supernatural commitments backing them up… Let me be clear: I do firmly believe that MLK and Ghandi — two unusually brave individuals with a very strong moral sense — would have and could have acted in a similar manner even in an entirely non-supernatual world. But would they and could they have been able to rally enough people to support them in their cause?

Do we need to invoke an Imaginary Friend to move the masses?

These are empirical questions, but I’m not sure how to answer them.


The question I have for those who would dream of scenario #3, the non-judgmental utopia — the rosy one where people are good both supernaturally and naturally — is: what keeps the supernaturalists from drifting leftward from LOVE to POWER?

For naturalists, at least, selfish assholes or not, you can always engage them in argument, with a basis in evidence and logic, reaffirming our shared interest in human experience. They might not care (see, e.g., Zarathustra, Donald Trump), but at least they have to acknowledge your point.

For supernaturalists, however, even if they mean well, an argument regarding their actions can always be short-circuited by reference to, say, “God’s will.”

ISIS, it must be pointed out, sees themselves as acting out of love; they would no doubt place themselves in quadrant I instead of II! And here is the core of the problem: the subjectivity of supernaturalist thinking is ineradicable, impervious to changing facts. This is damaging and dangerous in and of itself, quite separate from the content of the beliefs.

This realization is exactly what moved me, some 10 years ago, from my formerly passive, enabling position on religion (COEXIST!, as the license plate preaches; don’t be “Islamophobic,” as the current Facebook and Twitter thought police emphasize) to a more assertive atheism (that is, against theism, not against the people who follow it). We can’t even began to engage others in sensible moral dialogue when they still cling to supernatural certainties.

Look, I said, I would be fine with keeping the supernaturally-driven good of MLK and Ghandi and hell, Jesus himself, if it didn’t come at such a price — the enabling of supernatural justifications and habits of certainty. Think of the kids.

Critiquing the Chart

When my chart presentation ended, we spent some time talking over its flaws.

Steve pointed out that the chart implies a static situation, when in fact there are changes over time, and the different features interrelate.

Yann pointed out that it was obvious I haven’t done enough presentations in a business setting. The convention, he explained, is to have the positive part, whatever you are pitching, at the top. Whereas I had clustered all the naturalist loving people at the bottom. I acknowledged that he had a point but asked, “How can you put SUPERNATURALISM at the bottom and NATURALISM at the top? The associations all run the other way!” We’ll have to set our Old New Way graphic design team on this thorny problem.

Walden pushed back on my suggestion that, over time, the arts will move downwards towards NATURALISM. He mentioned how he discovered recently that a jazz musician he enjoys, Brad Mehldau, is religious. It gave him pause but doesn’t change his experience of the music. (Ken located an interesting link to Brad Mehldau’s own eloquent thoughts on art and religion here.)

I agreed that music, being so direct and emotional medium, doesn’t really reflect the supernatural or materialistic commitments of its players and composers. So maybe music is an exception.

It’s more in the realm of literature and visual art, I suggested, that we look for a more accurate thematic representation of the dilemmas and divisions and complicated experiences of our lives. It’s here that an author or painter’s creaky commitments to supernaturalism may, over time, give his or her work a dated quality.

More On the Question of Where We Will Be In 200 Years

Shari stated that she considers humans to be detached from their environment and their connections to other animals. If we could regain our sense of connection, she suggested, we could establish a perfectly harmonious and efficient existence in the world. Perhaps, then, we could end up with the entire left side of the chart fading away?

I scoffed at this, challenging her to describe any perfectly harmonious and efficient group. She clarified that she has experienced this at times, but in a fleeting way. She mentioned that she has been influenced by Zoroastrianism, as well as Ayurvedic practices, in this respect.

I persisted to say that I thought that she was making an unfounded assumption as to the human capacity for “transcendence.” If you really take in, again not just accept but take it in,  that we are products of evolution, animals with conflicting hormonal and neurochemical urges, systems that clash endlessly in our little bodies, than you pretty quickly find quaint the idea of achieving a pure state of harmony with anything.

Yes, Yann interjected, but it doesn’t have to be so pessimistic either. Yann mentioned in this regard that he was frustrated by Gray’s unrelenting gloom and doom — all this talk of the cyclical patterns of human history —  as he read parts of The Silence of Animals. In Yann’s view, there is no need to tip either way into optimism or pessimism.

Humans have a range of behavior traits, he acknowledged (gesturing along the whole of the x-axis on the chart). Some, sure, are selfish and assholic; some are generous, other-directed, “good.” Yet Yann argued that our unique symbol-making conscious minds make us, distinct from other animals, capable of seeing the benefits — and arranging for more and more of the benefits — of these “good” actions. Therefore, despite the obvious blunders we have made in the last century (e.g. burning fossil fuels and devastating the environment through industry and warfare), we can make adjustments going forward! In this way we might, just possibly, avoid ruining the planet for our children. (Although he conceded that we may not achieve this goal — basically it’s a 50%/50% chance in Yann’s mind — again neither optimistic or pessimistic).

I said that I didn’t see it that way. This “specialness,” which he attributes to our species (homo sapiens), is to my mind merely a fancy, self-serving label for what is familiar to us, in our patterns of behavior. Free will is, in my estimation, largely an illusion. Yes we believe that we are rationally adjusting to circumstances and tilting our behavior towards the “good,” achieving “progress,” etc. But I don’t think that is actually right in any meaningful sense. We are merely playing out our conflicting self-driven and group-driven moral impulses, just as other mammals do.

Only we do it with symbols and words that make us feel righteous about it.

As for the record of humanity, Shari suggested, it is pretty bleak so far! The preponderance of the evidence is that we are a ruining the world for many other species. We are in a period of mass extinction due to human action.

Yes, yes, Yann said, we have, no question, screwed it up for other species. But at least for our own species we have done well. Life spans have increased dramatically. Science has provided vaccines, antibiotics, etc.

For how long, though? some of us asked.

Do We Care More for Humans Than Other Species?

In this discussion, at one point, Yann stressed that he does not privilege humans over other species of animals.

I said that, even so, we still favor our own for sheer reasons of familiarity, don’t we? I explained that I personally feel more empathy for my fellow bipedal primates than I do for, say, cows.

Yann surprised many of us by saying, no, he cares just as much for cows. In fact, he is trying to discipline himself to be a vegetarian for this very reason (he has, touchingly, been influenced in this by his son Thibaud, who is so repulsed by cruelty to our fellow animals that he refuses to eat them).

“But you would under no circumstances eat a burger made of human flesh, right?” I challenged him. “In that case you don’t have to ‘try to discipline yourself’ because you have, naturally, at your disposal, more empathy for your particular fellow primate. Don’t you?”

“Nope,” said Yann. “I should care about cows just as much. And I believe that I could love them just as much.” (I made a note that we should read Peter Singer soon in this group. He takes exactly this maximalist position on our ethical obligations to animals of other species.)

Nietzsche’s Theory of the Last Man

Both Walden and Kristen mentioned, at different points in the discussion, that the agendas of different people will always be different. They may overlap, but they will not coincide exactly.

I wondered if, for those of us who happily position ourselves in the “Old New Way,” quadrant IV, on the chart, this diversity of viewpoints, this fragmentation of world views, will always lead us to be somewhat… dissolute.

Can we no longer dream bold dreams and hold the highest ideals?

Jerry mentioned that he missed the sense of moral clarity and idealism that he experienced in the 1960s and 70s. This was one reason to participate in this reading group — to try to rediscover that experience of shared purpose.

I lamented that people used to have an assumption of ultimate meaning, lurking out there somewhere, and as this concept has faded so too has the fervor behind many of the moral causes in the world. Don worried that conservatives, more attune to supernatural and ideological unity, continue to out-strategize the progressive community. They still have a fervor and unity that we lack. Shari countered that such ideologies will always collapse of their own harshness in time.

I brought up Nietzsche’s notion of the “Last Man” in this context.

Zarathustra laments that, with the death of God, humanity will end up trivialized, seeking entertainment and distraction, making no bold commitments, favoring safety and security over risk and acheivement.

No one will want to be ruled or rule.

Warning of this, Zarathustra expects the people to rise up and hail the alternative he offers them: the übermensch! The creative, active, power-hungry man who transcends his animality and his humanity! Quite incisively though, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has the crowd reject the übersmench in favor of the Last Man.

I proposed to the group that we are, in effect, Nietzsche’s Last Men… and Women. (Let’s open it up to both genders, why don’t we.)

Our aims are small. Our meanings highly individualized. We listen to Adele or Vivaldi or Mingus on our iPod while shopping for the right rosemary-infused ham for a picnic in a carefully maintained public park. So what?

The Call of the Wild

From this we got into a discussion of how far we really can commune with nature.

If our “Old New Way” moral outlook is really grounded in NATURALISM, as the chart would suggest, then how does this work exactly?

I mentioned a walk recently, on Setenay’s birthday, during which a bunch of us chatted the whole time and only minimally touched the furry bark of the trees we passed or the soft undersides of the leaves. But even if we had stopped to hug them and sniff the bark, trace the leaves with our fingers, would that have really provided us with some deeper moral and existential awareness?

Ken mentioned that he does have this sort of transformative experience when he goes camping by himself for an extended period in nature.

Is this enough, though, this altered state Ken achieves for a brief time? Can it compete with the ecstasies unleashed by speaking in tongues in a Pentecostal church, or embarking on a Shaministic journey with spirit-guides?

I held up a naturalist guide, A Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, that I had read recently. I had amused myself, I told the group, when I began reading it, choosing to approach it quite self-consciously as a kind of alternative Bible for someone committed to a naturalistic outlook like myself. Yet in the end, despite the elegant writing about grebes and Tule elk and geological time pushing the rocky Pt. Reyes peninsula northward along the fault line, I was left feeling… fairly the same.

Where is the place for the intense, transformative experience in our Old New Way outlook? Where is the ecstasy?

I mentioned that in the last meeting I had been desperate to have some affirmation that at least we might prioritize “love” above all other values, even without a supernatural directive. If an imaginary Jesus can do it in the New Testament, can’t we?

Don’t we have enough evidence from the experience of love in our own lives to say that it is way forward? I had made the argument that someone like Larry Ellison or Pablo Picasso would benefit from adding a little more love to their lives, even at the expense of other values such as self-expression or the pursuit of achievement. But the group, to my shock, rejected this notion.

They argued for a whole smorgasbord, if you will, of values, and not prioritizing “love” over the others. (See the notes from the meeting on Love to revisit this debate in more detail.)

This gets to the “Last Man” problem that Nietzsche and his Zarathustra lamented, does it not? Is there nothing we stand for anymore?

The First Time I Ever Bested Yann in an Argument 

The discussion wound down to general feeling of good will.

Walden provoked me again with his talk of stopping at the negative direction of “Don’t be an asshole.” Isn’t that enough of a moral directive in our lives, he asked? But we will leave that to the last meeting (Walden, feel free to clarify with a comment, either there or here.)

A few of us stood around for a bit, chatting.

And that’s when one more funny thing happened.

Towards the end of the meeting I thought of the perfect rejoinder to Yann’s insistence that he does not value humans, as members of his own species, any more than he does all the other species on this planet.

“So, Yann,” I asked, my eyes gleaming, “Would you have been just as happy to have two calves instead of your two boys?”

He looked at me, uncomprehending. “Calves?”

“Two calves, Yann. In custom-fit pajamas, big, round, watery eyes, looking up at you from the crib. Would that be just as good as having two small boys?”

“Sure,” Yann said — but I must say, without conviction. “That would be fine.”

“Wouldn’t it get a little hard when all they ever said to you was, ‘Mooooooo’?”

I think I got him there.

Primates that we are, there’s something about other primates like us that just means more.

But he resisted to the end, valiantly.

“Tom,” he said, his arm gesturing in front of him, “We could love a piece of glass as much as a human, if we spent a long time caring for it!”

“I think André or Thibaud would beat a piece of glass,” I offered, not unreasonably.

And that was when, possibly for the first time in our long friendship, I saw Yann concede a point.

“Well, Andre and Thibaud are very special boys…” he trailed off.

His eyes grew soft as he thought of his boys, and I dare say he glowed a little. He glowed with a warmth that a piece of glass — I don’t care if it is green, sculpted sea-glass — could never provoke in him.

Next month we will read the newly published Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. So we will get closer to this question of our difference from, and similarity to, animals.

Looking forward to it.

Notes on the Eighth Meeting — ON BEING ANIMALS


Yann brought a number of delicious dishes, and we mingled around the dining room for a half hour. Then, as usual, we moved to the living room at 8:30 pm.

Anne’s Presentation

Anne gave a thoughtful presentation on Carl Safina’s book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

She talked about how Safina challenges the long-time taboo against anthropomorphizing animals. In an admirable attempt to be scientific and rigorous, most researchers have focused exclusively on animals’ observable behavior, without informing their observations with what they know vividly about their own experience of being alive.

They have therefore, unintentionally or not, treated ghost crabs, meerkats, dolphins, lions and the like as mere automotons, going about their lives as discrete clusters of data instead of as potentially sentient beings.

As a result, we have neglected the inner lives of animals.

Safina says that perhaps, at this point, a little anthropomorphizing is in order.

To the extent that anthropoids, like us, share much of our genetics, chemistry, biology with all of the other animals on this planet, then we can begin to make some inroads into understanding their subjective states of mind, too, their emotions, their unique perspectives. We can began to see them as “whos” rather than “whats.”

Not that we want to anthropomorphize them merely as a metaphor for ourselves. This is Safina’s crucial point: it’s not to understand ourselves better; it’s to understand them better.

My Embarrassing Lapse

When, in this context, Anne mentioned that all mammals share a common ancestor, I felt an urge to speak up, to my infinite regret.

I asked how it could be, in that case, that we are told chickens descended from dinosaurs? Wouldn’t that be a different common ancestor, then? Silence. I gazed around the room, and my eyes met expressions that ranged from pity to incomprehension. Finally, Heather ventured a response.

“Tom,” she said, “Chickens aren’t mammals.”

“They aren’t?” I said, laughing to cover up my embarrassment. “Not even those fuzzy little chicks?”

“Not even those fuzzy little chicks.”


“Mammals drink milk. Birds don’t have breasts,” Devyani intoned.

“Not even — not even — penguins?”

“Not even penguins, Tom,” Heather answered, steady as ever.

At this point Yann had a gleam in his eye. Perhaps he was imagining what a penguin would look like with breasts? Or maybe he was just hungry for some avian meat? We’ll never know.

In any case, we moved on. For the record, I will never mistake chicks for mammals again, and I would like to apologize to the group for my momentary lapse.

Seeing Animals as Individuals

We talked about how humans share with all other animals — mammals and those who flock together — many of the same “deep brain” structures; the same chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin and cortisol are active in the brains of many living things. Same, or very similar, neural wiring too.

So why, Anne asked, would we presume that our experiences of the world are so very special, so sophisticated, so distinct, compared to other animals?

Walden mentioned how he was struck by Carl Safina’s throwaway line that, of all species, only humans seem capable of “self-loathing.” He wasn’t sure if it is even true, but it haunted him to think that it might be.

Others objected that we likely aren’t even special in that regard. Dogs, for example, show a capacity for self-loathing — certainly they act guilty when reprimanded. Anne concluded her presentation by saying that research into other animals’ minds and distinct subjective experiences is so rudimentary, the field is so young, that many of these questions have not even been asked yet in a serious way.

“What is that shark doing?” is standard.


“What is that shark thinking?” is wide open.

Safina’s book is a welcome start, as he looks closely at the current research on elephants, wolves and killer whales, and tries to get under the surface of observable detail to the individuals within.

Homo Sapiens as “Special” vs. “Superior”

Yann spoke up to say that he still considers human beings inarguably “special,” in the sense that we have acquired spoken and written language, computational skills, abstract reasoning, record-keeping, and the consequent ability to control our environment far beyond other animals.

He insisted that it is nonsense to deny that we have “evolved more” than other animals over the last 150,000 years. Whereas they have remained largely static in their relationships with the earth and its resources, humans have advanced by leaps and bounds. The end result may be destructive and regrettable, but it is undeniable that we stand alone in our achievement.

He ended by saying that although he believes we are “special” under any reasonable definition of that word, he does not consider us morally superior in any way.

I pushed back, saying that Yann’s urging of a moral equivalence between humans and other species seemed too quick to me. Sure, if you define morality as something species-independent, something that exists apart from human needs and preferences, then we are not of greater “moral” value than other animals at all. No doubt, as he points out, we have done untold damage to other species — and continue to do so. So how could we possibly be considered morally “superior” (on a utilitarian calculus, or a rights-based calculus) if we consider the effects of our actions on all living things?

But here’s the rub. Morality, to my mind at least, is, whether we like it or not, a species-dependent term. For talk of morality to have any meaning for us, it must be limited to a certain species of bipedal primates called homo sapiens. When we speak of the “good” and the “fair” and the “just,” we are talking about our obligations to one another in a social setting, as fellow primates. Anything else is just a confused symbolic representation of our neurochemical urges.

So, contrary to Yann, I would argue that we are, inescapably, morally superior to other animals, on our own terms.

Just as elephants are morally superior to us, on their own terms.

Just as killer whales are morally superior to us and elephants alike, on their own terms.

Any attempt to create a universal morality collapses into incoherence. For what would be the standard that supports it? How would we reconcile the empathy — or lack thereof — of a crow towards a worm? The devotion of a mallard for his life-partner? The touching maternal instinct of a hairy tarantula towards her eggs? We couldn’t. We are, each species, morally superior on our own terms. Nobody protects a cluster of tarantula eggs quite like a mama tarantula. She means it, she really means it.

JGT_120925_01425 septembre 2012

As for “special,” which Yann does grant us… there I disagreed the opposite way. We may be morally superior, worthy of special pleading as it were, in my primate-centric view, but we are not, in this view, special in any important sense. Certainly we are different. We have language, nuclear warheads, skyscrapers and sewer laterals, true. But being “special” implies something intrinsically better, doesn’t it? Can’t we agree that humans are notably different from other animals on this planet without falling into the trap of feeding our egoistic urge to consider ourselves better?

In short, Yann holds that we are special, but we are not morally superior (in some impartial, universal estimation of value).

I hold the opposite: that we are not special — just different — but that we are morally superior (in our own species-dependent estimation of value).

Is this merely a semantic squabble? Or does it have consequences for our relationships with animals and the larger world? I think it does have consequences, as we will see when we come to the question of vegetarianism.

So if We Finally Accept That We Are Animals, How Will That Change Our Lives?

As Yann and I demonstrated our species’  seemingly insatiable urge to consider ourselves “special,” at the top of a Great Chain of Being, or, alternatively, morally “superior” (even if I acknowledge that this is only on our own terms) — the group started to inquire whether we can ever hope to drop this way of thinking entirely.

What if we were to see ourselves simply as one particular species of ape, noisy, randy, a little hairy, good at manipulating the natural world for our short-term gain (and long-term loss). Nothing special or superior at all.

What happens then?

How does that change us?

From Vegetarianism to Cannibalism and Back

Yann insisted that once we drop our claims to moral superiority we should all become vegetarians, on the basis of the suffering of animals in factory farms and the like. Devyani insisted that vegetarianism causes a great deal of animal suffering as well — as in India, where the clear-cutting of forests and damning of water sources and use of pesticides have all contributed to the decline of animal species. So even eating plants has its attendant suffering. I spoke up to say that since I favor primate concerns (again, since my morality is not universal, like Yann’s, but human all the way down), I am okay with eating meat, despite the suffering it entails. I would feel bad to see it up-close, and I try to buy organic, grass-fed for that reason and others, but my concern is not categorical against suffering of all kinds, when it gives me nourishment.

Walden spoke up to say that he thought there was a spectrum at play here. Certainly, he said, most of us can agree that nobody should kill an elephant simply for its ivory tusks (though millions upon millions across Asia and much of the world would disagree with this… Walden was, I think, meaning people in the room presently). Yet, he continued, some of the other ways that we exploit animals are more difficult to reject out of hand, and this includes the eating of meat. While reading Safina’s book, Walden stopped eating meat for three days, but then he resumed it under pressure from his wife. It gets harder, he argued, to make these distinctions as we move along the spectrum… away from greed and towards need.

I took another stab at the middle of the spectrum. I emphasized that I do care about another animal suffering, whether a cow, a pig, a chicken, or even a cat or a monkey. Yet my compassion only goes so far. It’s different when it comes to humans. I draw a line at human suffering — I consider it more actionable — for the simple reason that I can imagine myself in another person’s position so easily.

Perhaps it is other people’s ability to communicate with me that makes the difference? (A human behind a chain-link fence could argue his case against factory farming of his flesh for consumption; a cow can’t.) The fact is, when it comes to a cow… or a cat… there is a gap between us just wide enough for me to tolerate eating that cow’s… or cat’s… meat (for the record, I have never eaten a cat — but Yann asked about these more rare delicacies, trying to get me to budge my “morally superior” line away from humans).

Yann announced that the conversation was, to his surprise, making him swing to the opposite extreme of vegetarianism! Logic, he felt, compelled him to take the position that we should, and he would, if so inclined, eat human flesh as well as animal flesh. It was not clear whether it was a coincidence, but at this exact moment both Setenay and Anne, who had been sharing the couch with him, cleared out “to go refill their glasses.” Left alone, undeterred, Yann continued to insist that he would bite down on human flesh just as he would a ham sandwich.

I objected, again,  to his understanding of what “morality” means. He seems to base it on some false notion of finding a consistent and universal point of reference for it. In his case, perhaps he believes the basis of morality is logic? (I wasn’t sure.)  What I do know, I said, is that in my understanding morality is more of a loose association of social obligations, a constantly changing, fluid system of praise and blame. Eating his fellow human beings, though arguably logically sound, would have severe consequences for Yann in almost any social setting. It would pose a threat to the harmony and safety of the group. He would, therefore, find himself shamed, exiled, punished, shunned. It would therefore be “wrong.” There is no deeper sense of “wrong” available to us.

The shaming, the exile — these are not extraneous consequences. They are not merely the result of Yann’s impressive moral-logical consistency; this is, rather, how morality works in the real world. It does not operate in a vacuum. It operates in a social context (hence, as I say, it is, unavoidably species-dependent). Just to get his attention, I drew an unpleasant analogy to rape. In many cases it would feel good, right? If ruled by instinct alone, many men might choose to pursue it. But as in the case of cannibalism, such actions would not come without severe consequences. And hence most men do not, in most structured social settings, engage in rape (and thank goodness, many soldiers have become so acculturated and accustomed to not rape that they desist even in war or other chaotic settings).

Heather pointed out that our capacity for “othering” living creatures, be they animals of other species or sub-populations of our own, is enormous. She argued, therefore, that humans are easily led to cause immense suffering in many ways, cannibalism and rape being two of many possible examples of this. So Yann is right, she said, that there is no moral absolute that bars such practices. That is not the same, however, as condoning it.

I tried to steer the discussion away from these extreme cases of cannibalism and rape… back to our broader question:

How would accepting, really accepting, ourselves as animals change us?

The Animals In Our Lives

Tamara mentioned that she always has had deep and specific and meaningful relationships with animals, be they squirrels in the trees, dogs, birds. It gives her joy to encounter these other lives every day. Renee mentioned that when she was young she stared into the eyes of her grandmother’s horses, and as a result she has always been aware that they look back as much as we look at them. I talked about how my relationship with our skittish cat, Cozy, has changed, since reading this book. Whereas I had previously seen her behavior as merely that — behavior — now I see her run under the bed and I recognize that this is her character. I feel a wave of sympathy for her. I am aware that this is Cozy, and no other. She is anxious. The “who” of her finds my footsteps threatening, and she needs to take cover, regardless of the irrationality of such a response after years of living in this house with me. That’s how her brain responds, and it is real (cortisol released and all the rest).

I have taken to walking more gently when I can.

We also talked about zoos and pets. In both cases, as John Berger points out in the great article that Setenay sent in, we have framed animals in an artificial way. In zoos they are degraded and confined. In our houses they are domesticated and dependent, and to add insult to injury, wearing clothes and wristwatches in our children’s books.

I mentioned that I suddenly felt bad, while reading Berger, that we had spayed our three cats, Cozy, Rhino and Love Dolphin, when they were young. By doing so we took away their opportunity,  given to them in this brief life, for having kittens. Sure, there may be reasons not to have yet another litter of kitties introduced to the world, but this more general concern does not obviate the very personal, very intimate concerns of our particular cats, who would likely have enjoyed having their own kitties to lick and raise and cuddle. Again, here we go imposing our own morally “superior” primate outlook — save Berkeley from too many cats! — to enforce a definite loss in the quality of cats’ lives by spaying them.

If You Got a Chance to Hug a Killer Whale, What Would You Say to Her?

I posed a question for the group. If you found yourself swimming, naked, in the ocean, and a killer whale approached, and you discovered that, strangely, while hugging her close you could speak to her and be understood… what would you say?

I admitted, with sadness, that I would feel somewhat embarrassed to be a member of the species called homo sapien. I think I would have the urge to say, “I’m sorry for all we have done.” Yann agreed with this.

Gerry countered that once we accept that we are merely animals (and grieve for all of our grandiosity and exploitation of resources, and so on), then we need to step up. Why not aspire to be “Wolf 21” (an impressive wolf discussed in Safina’s book)? Why not be the best, most creative, most unforgettable primate you can possibly be?

“Do you mean like… Donald Trump?” I asked.

“I’m not going to specify what constitutes flourishing for any one, individual primate,” Gerry answered. “Sure, in Trump’s case, his public persona, his hotels, his money, may indicate that he is flourishing. In another person’s case, being ‘Wolf 21’ may look very different. My point is not to use our acceptance of our animality as an excuse for passivity.”

I explained that rather than make me feel passive, or a victim, when I acknowledge that I am “just an animal” it lifts me. For some reason it makes me more aware of the wide scope available to me, and all of us, in this life. It also reminds me that I cannot entirely control my circumstances, despite this wide scope. We have so many urges and chemical surges and language games to play and group dynamics to shape… and so many unexpected things will happen to us, too. I do want to be ‘Wolf 21’ (as soon as I figure out what that looks like to me — it’s a little clearer for Mr. Trump I think). So I didn’t think Gerry and I disagreed that much, after all.

As I write this it occurs to me that it might be useful to contrast two images.

One: a hairy primate. (I like how the stock photo says “Dreamstime” at the bottom. Is he dreamy? I can’t tell.)


Two: a marble statue of a human figure in its ideal form, as imagined by the ancient Greeks.


Both represent humans. Still, how do we get from image one to image two? How do we recognize our animal status but continue to dream of perfection? Are they both true? Can they co-exist? Or do they cancel each other out?

Can Helen of Troy be the most beautiful woman in the world, worthy of a ten-year siege of Troy, but also be (woefully? wonderfully?) a hairy primate with an attractive vulva positioned for reproduction?

The magic of sex, it occurs to me, is that both images converge into one, for a brief spell! The abstracted beauty, the idea of perfection, but also the specific and sweaty truth of the matter. Both supplement the other.

But I digress.

The Troubled State of Humankind

A few days later, I am forgetting much. (I recall a very interesting contribution from Steve, for example, with Gerry adding to it, but can’t remember the content of that particular discussion.) I do remember, however, that at the end of the meeting we got around to an assessment of human angst generally. Why, members of the group asked, do we seem to be the most troubled, the most ambivalent, of animals?

If elephants and killer whales (to name two species who, like us, have complicated social lives) show grace and love and loyalty, qualities we aspire to in our own primate relationships, then can we learn from them?

Will we ever learn to live more harmoniously with our fellow animals?

Someone pointed out that it is likely that the problem of self-loathing, of self-disgust, did not exist for homo sapiens for many thousands of years. We might have had bad days (surely we had bad hair days), but we didn’t feel ashamed at our own species.

It was with the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, that we got shunted into close proximity and saw ourselves in a new light. We began to dwell on our viscous side, our manipulative side, our deceit. All of these qualities were always with us (they are with many animals), but now they became, painfully, more obvious. Frequent interactions with other humans can bring you down.

For a while we created a myth of progress and transcendence, as a kind of compensation. Our religions promised relief from our animal nature. But as we enter the 21st century that has become a stale dream. We recognize that despite some accumulated advances in culture, in some areas of the world at least — no public executions, no general tolerance for wife-beating or rape — despite all this, we are still stuck with ourselves.

So we seek in animals, perhaps, a lost innocence. An enviable ignorance, even. We wish ourselves back to a time when we were isolated enough, busy enough, verbally limited enough, not to see our own staggering limitations. Now we look around, glance in the newspaper, and all we can see is the status-mongering, the violence, the resource-hoarding. And it hurts.

Why do we look to animals? What can we learn from them?

After our discussion I would say that I still don’t know. Except for minor changes in my perspective (more sympathy for Cozy, who sits next to me right now licking her paws and looking nervous), I don’t know how my awareness of animals’ inner lives, and my acceptance of my own animals status, changes me. Yet, as I said at the meeting, I have an intuition that this awareness is at the core of a new kind of post-supernatural human morality… Much thinking and discussing and living still to do.

You? Write in with a comment to explain more about how recognizing yourself as an animal has changed you, if at all.

Thanks for a great talk everybody. I’m looking forward to our January meeting. Part of me feels that we we should pursue this subject farther.

I also want to address at some point, squarely, the role of anti-religious, anti-supernatural advocacy… in our age of open bigotry. Can they be made distinct? Can you be against religion but not give encouragement to those who preach hate against Muslims or other religious people? Interesting times. Troubling times. But then, what do you expect from a bunch of primates?


Notes on Our Tenth Meeting — AGING


A lot of people showed up to discuss aging. Who would have guessed that this, of all topics, would draw such enthusiasm?

We enjoyed some bread and cheese, red and white wine, tea, a delicious bulgur salad brought by Setenay, and colorful cupcakes brought by Dean.

At 8:30 pm, we made our way to the living room.

1. Tom’s Presentation: A Norwegian Folk Tale and… a Musical Time Lapse

First the story. I read it most recently in Robert Bly’s book, The Sibling Society (in which he laments the increasingly youth-obsessed, horizontally-structured contemporary culture, and poses this story as a counterpoint).

Being part-Norwegian in my ancestry, I had actually stumbled upon it before with my son George, and it gave us a good laugh at the time.

It is an old Norwegian folk tale.

A traveller is lost in a snowy wood. He trudges along as the sky darkens. Just as he is almost giving up hope, he sees a small cabin ahead of him.

A man, who looks to be about 30 years old, chops wood outside of it.

“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I possibly stay the night with you? Night is falling, and I am far from home.”

“You must have been very worried,” says the man, leaning against a stump. “I am glad you found this house. But you will have to ask my father.” He points to the front door.

So the traveller climbs up the steps to the front door and enters.

Inside, he is met with warmth. A fire burns in the kitchen stove. He sees a man of about 60 years, crouching on the dirt floor to feed more kindling into the stove.

“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I stay the night with you? I am lost, you see.”

“I am glad you found this house,” says the man, “But you will have to ask my father.” He points to a room farther in.

The traveller goes in. The inner room is dark, but he can barely make out an armchair in the corner. An old man of about 80, quite shrunken, his skin so gray as to appear colorless, sits on it.

“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I stay the night here?”

“I understand why you asked,” says the old man. “But you will have to ask my father.” He waves a finger at the far corner of the room.

The traveller feels his way until he bumps into a small bed. On it lies a man of about 100 years, very small. The man peers up at the traveller with sunken eyes.

“May I stay the night?” asks the traveller. “I would think so,” whispers the old man, “But you will have to ask my father.”

In the corner of the room, the traveller sees a crib. Stepping closer, he sees little wrinkled man curled up inside of the crib. He bends down and says, in the gentlest voice possible, “May I spend the night in this house?”

This little old man, who looks to be no more than six inches long, answers, “You will have to ask my father.”

Following the gaze of the shrunken man below him, the traveller turns to looks up at the ceiling. He sees a hunting horn, hanging from a beam over his head. When he comes closer, he sees, sleeping on it, a very old man, about an inch long.

“May I stay the night with you in this house?” asks the traveller.

The old man looks up, the skin sagging from his face. “Yes,” he says.

The group, properly freaked out by now, let out a laugh… followed by a kind of groan. (Terror? Recognition? Hard to say.) But really, when you think about it, I said, we all have these little “fathers” and little “mothers” inside of us, our ancestors, all the time.

With that, I moved on to the next part of my presentation.

I am going to play you a familiar song, I said.

First, we will hear this song performed by the artist when he was a very young man.

Next we will hear it played after a lifetime of experiences. Same song, same words, same music. Completely different meaning.

I pushed play and Bob Dylan began singing, “The Times They Are a Changin” from his 1964 album by the same name.

After about a minute I faded the volume down. Then I played Dylan singing the same song, many years later (I played the version from his MTV Unplugged concert in 1995.)

Here is a video of him playing it at the White House as recently as 2013, almost 50 years after he released it:

Listen to how the whole perspective has shifted…

Same person.

Entirely different person.

2. The Question of “Wisdom”

Lucie started us off on the right note by observing that aging is a gift. Any complaints we have are completely overshadowed by the blessing of being able to live into old age. That was a good thing to have in mind as we started getting into it.

Ken and Kristen, in quick succession, suggested that, in their experience, older people accumulate a kind of “wisdom” from which we can learn.

Kristen spoke lovingly of her grandfather, who had an intelligent and inquisitive mind and, as a result, consistentuly gave wonderful advice to her.

She recalled how, for example, in the days following 9-11, feeling completely distraught, she called her grandparents for perspective. Having lived through World War II and Hiroshima and, well, the latter half of the 20th century, her grandfather explained that he saw this event as part of the movement of history. His experience told him that people across the world would surprise her and rise to the challenges posed by terrorism; that terrible events sometimes herald a powerful response.

Ken, too, spoke of the wisdom of elders, and how we should venerate them for their varied experiences.

I explained that my starting-point for the discussion was quite different.

You see, I said, having seen Nebraska, I had developed a new understanding of what this so-called “wisdom” of age represents… The old man played by Bruce Dern in Nebraska is — let’s be clear about it — a total dick. He is selfish, obstinate, repressed, grouchy to an extreme degree, an alcoholic, quite possibly demented. We begin the movie convinced that he is nothing but a problem, certainly an almost unbearable burden on his son (who appears to be in his 4os).

Yet at the movie progresses we come to appreciate that the common notion of an inheritance, a “legacy” if you will, moving from the older generation to the younger generation, is really quite superficial, even specious. It’s true, this old man has very little to give: no insight, no kindness, certainly not any money. But the gift of a “legacy,” we come to realize, is really one that the younger generation bestows on the older one. Over the course of the movie the 40-something son first recognizes, and then chooses to honor, his father’s fully subjective, singular understanding of the world, even with all of its foibles.

Perhaps the “wisdom” of old people, then, is not an objective accumulation of knowledge or insight — they still may get it all wrong and even, on many occasions, act like total dicks. Instead, though, I learned from this film that “wisdom” is the accumulation of subjectivity. It is a kind of nutrient-rich water. An old person deserves respect by his or her very singularity.

I mentioned that seeing this movie actually changed my relationship with my own parents. I sat there on the couch, after watching it, and thought about how, as I enter this chapter of life, I am faced with a choice: complain about my parents, as so many do, or accept them as they are. I choose to honor their subjective understandings of the world (without necessarily agreeing with them). I choose to cherish, rather than judge. To me, their “wisdom” is real because it is more deeply theirs, not because they know more than anyone else.

Claudine pointed out that we can appreciate our parents — and older people generally — for the knowledge or insight that they may have, while at the same time acknowledging that they have other blind-spots and failings, as do we all. In her case, she recognizes her father’s vast array of factual knowledge and analytical skill, and she turns to him for answers when these apply. He may have very different values than she does (as she experienced on a recent vacation in her parents’ retirement community), so there are other areas that she may not turn to him for advice — for example, parenting questions about the use of digital technologies? And that’s alright.

Walden spoke up to play “devil’s advocate,” as he put it. He pointed out that many of the obstacles in the way of a more just and equitable society are put up by old people. He had two words for us: Trump voters.

So why should we defer to and venerate older people? Maybe wisdom resides in youth?

I answered that while it is true that many old people get much wrong, stuck as they are in traditional habits of mind, etc., still, they seem to have an intangible sense of things that younger people don’t. It’s not their grasp of facts, or any one experience they have tucked under their belts… It’s some kind of wily “getting-it” that seems to accrue to them over time.

I posited that even the most ill-informed, gray-haired, foul-breathed, flag-waving Trump supporter, after a day spent blabbing on about illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists, might have… some strange, subjective insight about a relationship problem you faced, if you sat together for breakfast. The wisdom of older people may be something like a spice cabinet. You open one jar and it is empty. You open another, and you can’t believe how much you have missed that particular flavor all your life.

Walden acknowledged that it is true that older people can have surprising insights; he didn’t disagree with what I said. But his point still held, that they are sometimes apotheosized too much, considering their limitations.

3. Cultural Differences

Setenay talked about how in Turkish and Circassian cultures old people are treated very differently.

When an older person enters a room (whether that person is an uncle or a great aunt or merely a friend of your father’s), anyone younger rises. You converse with older people with a different language altogether, than you do your friends. (I imagine that even eye contact is sustained longer?)

When Setenay first moved to the United States she was horrified that her friends would even think to label their parents with run-of-the-mill adjectives: they are “really old-fashioned,” she’s so “uptight,” oh my god they were acting so “ridiculous,” my dad’s “going through a midlife crisis,” when my mom called she started getting so “picky,” and so on. She would not think of summing up the characters or behavior of her parents in this way: to a Turkish girl her parents simply are who they are, and she is not to try to pin them to a board like a collector of butterfly species.

Anne, from Germany, mentioned that Germans, too, have a sense of obligation and duty to their elders. But she said that cultural differences do not override reality. She emphasized that older people, however we may want to ignore it, do show a variety of personal traits, regardless of the cultural protections that they may be afforded.

Some may be generous and thoughtful and deserving of lifelong respect. Some — sorry, but it is undeniable — may be undeserving of much at all! They may be physically abusive, deceitful, hateful, jealous, divisive, small-minded. And in such cases, whatever the cultural construct, younger people may need to call their elders out. (I think of two amazing movies that show cases of this: Monsoon Wedding and Celebration — if you haven’t seen either of these you should, immediately — they are unforgettable.)

Yann spoke of his relationships with his French mother and Austrian father. When he was quite young he came to accept the ways in which he would have to care for them, rather than be cared for by them. Yet this did not engender bitterness or ingratitude in his case.

“Why is that?” I asked. He answered, simply, that in his early 20s he recognized that his parents were who they were — and were not capable of changing. So he came to love and accept them even with their limitations. His mother (a very impressive woman — I have come to know her) is blind, and this means that Yann has to worry for her on many occasions, but this is not a burden. He simply accepts it as part of the fabric of their life.

Some members in the group  wondered, though, at how much this kind of respectful treatment of elders is made possible by having ample resources. Even Yann agreed that there may be an economic calculus at work, and as older people become less… economically valuable, they become, correspondingly, more expendable.

Anshu mentioned that in India more and more old people are all but abandoned by their children — to run-down group homes or even worse. They are simply too expensive to maintain.

Marie-José said that sometimes a person just needs the right combination of factors to sweeten the end of life. Her French father, who was often an unpleasant person when she was growing up, in recent years has made a complete turnaround. Two changes took place: first, he developed a healthy fear of death (an aneurism did that) and, second, his doctor upped his bipolar medication. The combination has made him a happy, charming man, a man whom she had rarely before seen.

We all agreed that it is so intensely individual, this aging process. Each parent, each person, accumulates physical ailments, emotional states, psychological conditions, moments of grace and ongoing torments — and the end-result is completely unpredictable.

Looking around the room, we might ask: who among us will age well in the next 30 years? Who might age poorly? We have no idea.

4. How to Age Gracefully

With one exception: Don.

I revealed to the room that Don is in his 70s. (Okay, just 70 years old… but still, impressive!) Everybody went into shock, as we all know Don to be one of the most vigorous, open-minded, bright-eyed, youthful people we know. His cheeks glow, his blue eyes flash. He is interested in… um… pretty much everything. He has many friends in their 20s, 30s, 40s. He teaches multiple classes, attends film festivals, concerts, writer’s evenings. In short, what gives, Don? How do you do it?

He said that he takes satisfaction in thinking of his life as a series of rooms. Each time he leaves a room, the doors close behind him. But he leaves it without regret. That is because he fully inhabits each room as he goes, and then is fully done with it.

At the same time, he finds that the friendships and relationships he has nurtured in these rooms do not go away! You might say that we walk with him into the next room, and the next.

So he seems to have a way of being present but not attached to the setting or the habits of each phase. Right now, for example, he is an active grandfather. What will this room hold for him? What will the next hold when the kids go off to preschool?

5. Gender Differences

Hulya spoke up to say that she wanted to hear more about the experiences of the men in the room, as we find ourselves aging. What do we fear? What are we struggling with?

Since she was the one who had sent in an article entitled “The Floppy Penis,” the men in the room knew exactly what she was getting at. But we ignored that insinuation altogether. (We will leave her to her own speculations in that regard; perhaps they will better retain their… um… form that way?)

Instead, I answered exclusively in regards to men’s mental lives.  I mentioned that I have noticed my parent’s generation of men seeming to become more narrow and closed-off than the women their age, and this worries me greatly. For already, at 46, I feel the appeal of becoming more… narrow. It calls to me like a spell, like a song coming from deep in a forest…

Just do what you like, Tom.

Stop trying to please other people.

Just do what you know. What works.

There’s something appealing in this for men. (Am I right, guys?)

I can imagine myself at, say, 70, living a far more simple life, reading my books, planting a garden somewhere (if I’m lucky), driving my car around town for some errands, not giving a hoot about the larger world of demands and expectations.

This, I think, is a trap that men can fall into. They close off, narrow down, and it feels liberating, until it tips into obstinacy and isolation.

In my experience, older women, on the other hand, seem to grow ever more wide-ranging and open in their interests and affections. They sparkle and smile, and squeeze hands in secret communication. They make an effort to travel and increase their exposure to the frictions of life, all at the very same time that their husbands or other men they know seek to insulate themselves.

It seems to be a cause for much friction in old people’s relationships. We saw it represented in Stegner’s The Spectator Bird.

I explained that I want to resist this, yet I want to take the best of it too. I like the idea of honing down to the core, the movement to simplicity; I just don’t want to be an old codger.

So how do we men recognize when we are at the tipping point? When we start to “calcify”? (Don’s word — or did you say, “ossify”?) It’s a good question for men.

But there is another dilemma facing older men, I added: the question of sex. (I guess I couldn’t help myself and stumbled into the physical aspects of aging for men, after all.) It seems to me that men face a kind of binary choice in their old age. Either they… turn away, succumb, relinquish their youthful urges, soften into their old age (Hulya’s ears just pricked up at the word “soften”). Or they refuse to “go gently into that good night”! Is there a middle ground?

The poem I included by Frederick Seidel is one of many he writes in which he brazenly boasts of his triumph over Time… as a conqueror of young women. His poems are full of images of his old, gray, flabby body matched up against soft-skinned women with rosy lips and luscious hair… and more. Many older men (at least those with a modicum of financial success and status) face this choice in a way older women do not:

Do you go for it? 

Or do you refuse (so as to honor other values, like loyalty, tenderness, mutuality…)?

What does it mean to “age well,” from a man’s perspective?

Indeed, you see many men in the Bay Area leave their long-term marriages, even at the cost of their devotion to their children and their network of hard-earned friendships. In effect, going for it. Are they wrong to do this?

And it’s not just Seidel. A more decorous poet like Robert Hass writes of this dilemma too (indeed, he went for it, and left his marriage for a younger woman):

Against Botticelli


In the life we lead together every paradise is lost.

Nothing could be easier: summer gathers new leaves

to casual darkness. So few things we need to know.

And the old wisdoms shudder in us and grow slack.

Like renunciation. Like the melancholy beauty

of giving it all up. Like walking steadfast

in the rhythms, winter light and summer dark.

And the time for cutting furrows and the dance.

Mad seed. Death waits it out. It waits us out,

the sleek incandescent saints, earthly and prayerful.

In our modesty. In our shamefast and steady attention

to the ceremony, its preparation, the formal hovering

of pleasure which falls like the rain we pray not to get

and are glad for and drown in. Or spray of that sea,

irised: otters in the tide lash, in the kelp-drench,

mammal warmth and the inhuman element. Ah, that is the secret.

That she is an otter, that Botticelli saw her so.

That we are not otters and are not in the painting

by Botticelli. We are not even in the painting by Bosch

where the people are standing around looking at the frame

of the Botticelli painting and when Love arrives, they throw up.

Or the Goya painting of the sad ones, angular and shriven,

who watch the Bosch and feel very compassionate

but hurt each other often and inefficiently. We are not in any painting.

If we do it at all, we will be like the old Russians.

We’ll walk down through scrub oak to the sea

and where the seals lie preening on the beach

we will look at each other steadily

and butcher them and skin them.


The myth they chose was the constant lover.

The theme was richness over time.

It is a difficult story and the wise never choose it

because it requires a long performance

and because there is nothing, by definition, between the acts.

It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman

he fucks in the ass underneath the stars

because it is summer and they are full of longing

and sick of birth. They burn coolly

like phosphorus, and the thing need be done

only once. Like the sacking of Troy

it survives in imagination,

in the longing brought perfectly to closing,

the woman’s white hands opening, opening,

and the man churning inside her, thrashing there.

And the light travels as if all the stars they were under

exploded centuries ago and they are resting now, glowing.

The woman thinks what she is feeling is like the dark

and utterly complete. The man is past sadness,

though his eyes are wet. He is learning about gratitude,

how final it is, as if the grace in Botticelli’s Primavera,

the one with the sad eyes who represents pleasure,

had a canvas to herself, entirely to herself.

This conversation topic, admittedly a distasteful one, dropped like a stone.

(Isn’t there something about an older male poet boasting of his sexual performance — especially when he compares it to stars first exploding and then “resting now, glowing” — that is particularly irritating? Or do you think I am being unfair? Is this ageism at work? Please comment.)

6. Concluding Thoughts

Much more was said, but it is beginning to blur for me, a few days out.

There were some hilarious physical gestures made by M-J, which I will not describe, some touching stories by many members of their own experiences.

At one point Dean emphasized that he has turned to living a more “juvenile” lifestyle in this latest chapter of his life. “I have absolutely nothing going on in my head,” he declared, “The lights are completely turned off.”

We all laughed, knowing full well that this is not the case (if only based on his insightful contributions to our discussions at these meetings!)

I ended by saying that I am so often aware, during these discussions, that we are merely scratching the surface of these topics. When we talk for a few hours about what it means to be animals, or how we may better understand aging, we clarify our thinking in useful ways. But after this initial clarification, like a quick soap and a rinse, we need a long soak.

I hope that we can return to these topics again, circle back, and that our discussions may, over time, become less about clarifications, less about point-counterpoint. I wonder if we can structure the meetings so that they offer opportunities for an experience almost like a meditation? What is aging to you, once we get beyond the sharing of ideas and observations? What is it in your most quiet moments?

Next time we address this topic, some suggested, perhaps we can go around the room, and everyone can take a moment to talk about how he or she would like to age? What is the vision you have for yourself in 20, 30 years? Describe the setting you imagine, the details of your life, the (hopefully varying!) routines, the persistent thoughts you hope to have…

Thanks for participating, everybody. See you next month.


Notes on Our Eleventh Meeting — PHOTOGRAPHY


We gathered as usual at 8 pm. In a burst of optimism, I sent my kids upstairs, telling them to get their pajamas on, brush their teeth, and put themselves to bed. By 8:30 we moved into the living room.

1. Tom’s Presentation: What Do Photos Do For Us?

I talked a little about my own bafflement about why I post to Facebook. What is the purpose in my mind? But then I shifted the question to what a photo means to me in a purely private sense.

Yann caught this shift and clarified that… we were no longer talking about social media, then? I took his correction and tried to narrow my point of what a photograph means to each one of us privately.

Still, as our discussion got underway, it all got mixed up anyway!

Setenay remarked that she posts photos online mostly for her family in Turkey to view. So Facebook functions for her a kind of convenient photo-album. She feels that photographs are always nostalgic and sentimental. They are also celebrations, though. But perhaps, she suggested, there is another use of them: as a way to construct meaning in our lives.

Marie-José mentioned that, for her, photographs play a very different role: they simply provide a method by which to capture the unique way she sees the world. For example, she said, she may see two lines intersecting on a light post, or on a store window, and she will snap a quick photograph of that. This happens all day long, little instances when she wants to hold a moment in time. At home, Marie-José confessed, she spends a lot of time organizing and sifting through her digital photos, categorizing them by theme and visual impact.

Kristen said that because photos capture time they give her pleasure — she does not dwell on the loss, or even feel nostalgic, but instead the memories lift her.

I mentioned how the more I have learned about the neural plasticity of our brains, the more suspicious I have become of recorded images. According to neuroscience,  photographs and home videos, once viewed, will dominate our memories whether we want them to or not. Other, more elusive memories will not merely get crowded out or overpowered; they will, in effect, get erased.

For that reason I am glad that I have never watched Renée’s and my wedding video — I want the experience of that day to stay rich and strange in my mind and not get reduced to a single, somewhat arbitrary perspective.

2. Yann’s Question about “Arabic” vs. “Western” Understandings of Photographs

Yann brought up that he has read that in the “Arab” (Muslim?) world art is not understood as a separate realm of beauty and aspiration than crafts. Art is work like any other kind of work. There is shoddy work. There is excellent work. That applies to making a chair. It applies equally to painting a portrait.

In the West we are accustomed to this idea of an artist inhabiting a separate realm — that of the “fine” arts (or so we call it). “Where do members of the group stand on this question?” he asked. “Do you have the “Arabic” view or the “Western” one? Is art more elevated?

A number of people responded that they think of art as just another craft.

I mentioned that for years I have been feeling that the deluge, the vast quantity of art that reaches us now (through the entertainment delivery systems like Netflix and Xfinity, Youtube, etc.) has changed our understanding of what artists do.

Artists are no longer as rarefied as they used to be. Especially young people seem to celebrate all forms of creativity on equal grounds these days. In fact, some time over the past 10 years we have lost the high-brow, low-brow distinction entirely! (For example, a ridiculous but effective clay-mation story on Youtube may be valued as highly as much as a 16th century poem by John Donne. It’s a “whatever works for you” kind of thing.)

Manon spoke up to say that there does seem to be something about making art that is distinct from crafts.

She ran a preschool for many years, and she described for the group how, on occasion, one of the children’s drawing would turn out to be obviously spectacular. Just the right arrangement of colors and textures. A strange thematic unity. A shocking perspective on, say, what a brother looks like, or a dad (in my own family, I always wondered why I looked so dippy in my children’s early drawings — what devastating truth were they seeing to make them draw me like that? But that’s another story).

But these occasional triumphs of form by preschool-aged children are not the same as art, Manon, argued. Art, to her, is qualitatively different when an artist aspires to a great drawing, than when a child stumbles upon it.

Picking up on this point, I asked Yann if it wasn’t true that some singular mind, some unique artistic sensibility, has to be in charge, even in building the non-representational patterns in the mosques of the Middle East. Surely someone instructed the craftsmen (were there, are there, craftswomen?) to use only aqua-blue and yellow tiles in this one section; to broaden the arc here, and hollow out the bricks just so.

So there was a singular mind, then, with a clear vision, behind the “art,” wasn’t there? Even if it is true that it wasn’t and isn’t valued any more highly than a craft. There is a distinction, even if it isn’t recognized.

I said I agreed with Manon that there strikes me as something missing if we abandon the value the West has (at least since the 17th century) placed on the aspirations of the artist to communicate, not merely to decorate.

4. Art as Communication

Walden followed on this by suggesting that art is nothing more than a form of communication. That is its function. This led to a discussion about Aristotle’s Politics, and his point that outside of society, outside of the polis, “man is either a god or a beast.” That a human life only flourishes in a social setting. I described how this insight was a turning point for me when I was studying philosophy. I had entered graduate school looking for my own individual sense of right and wrong; I left looking to define the values of the world as I wanted it to look. (I was influenced by Richard Rorty in this outlook as well.)

3. Photography

The rest of the meeting we spent, with great pleasure, sharing the photos that people brought.

Kristin brought some gorgeous black and white images by the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, famous for his ability to capture the “decisive moment.” Here are two images Kristen shared:



Coley showed a photo that she took at the end of summer, two summers ago, on Tomales Bay. She said that she especially like the doubling, even the tripling of the point-of-view in this image, starting with Adeline (our daughter, standing under the tree), then, closer to us, the unseen photographer (Coley), and finally the viewer, whomever you may be. (Is there a fourth? Deep question.)

(Click here for Coley’s image: it’s online.)

Unfortunately I don’t have any other submissions to show. Please send them in if you want to.

Oh, and you are worrying about whether the kids put themselves to sleep all by themselves? They did! No idea how late. The truth is that I completely forgot to check in on them, but when I went upstairs at 11 pm they were all asleep in the dark, tucked in, happily dreaming.

I should have taken a picture.