Philosophers Arguing Over How to Be Good at Things, Plus Some Completely Unrelated Stuff About Genetics and Ethics

Here’s eclectic post of stuff to read that will allow for some enlightened procrastination from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing right now.

First, a piece from the philosophy blog over at the New York Times in which the author, Barbara Gail Montero, pushes back against the idea that star athletes or other people at the top of their fields act on instinct when performing at their peak. It’s not uncommon to hear a commentator say someone is “thinking too much” when they fail, and most of us can probably relate in some way or another. She frames her argument against that of the book I just finished the other week (and wrote about in my post about David Foster Wallace and the trouble with relying on one’s will to find happiness), All Things Shining, which Montero effectively summarizes as “a paean to the idea that exemplary performance happens to, rather than is done by, an individual.”

On a certain level, I agree with the argument of All Things Shining; I sure don’t consider myself an expert or star in any real field, but I do write a lot, and while there are some blissful moments when the writing comes naturally, this is not the status quo. Moreover, trying to consciously force myself into that state hardly ever works. Instead, it arises out of certain moods that I simply have to seize hold of when they come my way. It seems almost stupidly simple. It just happens.

But, as Montero notes, simply following the moods isn’t going to make one a star writer or hockey player or whatever else one might aspire to be. I can certainly relate to the ballet dancer Montero mentions who cannot watch herself dance; I absolutely hate reading my own writing because I know it can always be better, and I don’t think that will ever change. According to Montero (and Plato), I shouldn’t want it to: that belief that it can be better is what pushes me to keep writing. To stick with something even when it seems perpetually imperfect takes a real commitment, and that isn’t something one can find simply by riding moods as they come along. But, in deference to the authors of All Things Shining (Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly), it isn’t a matter of mere willpower, either. It is something far more deeply ingrained; something that one must fall in love with, and be perfectly willing to suffer through because it is inseparable from one’s being.

In the end, I think Montero and Dreyfus and Kelly agree more than they disagree. Montero talks of the relentless desire to improve, while Dreyfus and Kelly discuss the attitude of craftsmen honing their skills in a way that makes them one with their project. The two notions are almost certainly interrelated, and come together in people performing at the height of their abilities. These people lose themselves in their task so fully that they know no other option, and from there can blend the receptivity to moods of All Things Shining with an expert’s intuition. It is, to return to the theme of this blog, always a cycle.

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Next, we make a foray into biology with an article from Discover magazine that discusses how traumatic and/or life-changing incidents can also alter DNA. The biology alone is fascinating, but the part that absorbs me involves the ethical implications of the final line:

If … a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?

My gut response to this is an immediate ‘no.’ I am leery of any medical effort to wipe away our imperfections via genetic engineering. Looking at the traits I’ve most likely inherited from my parents and their parents and so on, it is hard to label them as ‘good’ and ‘bad;’ they just are, and I think many of our defining traits can wind up being both our biggest strengths and our biggest weaknesses, depending on the situation, or how far we take them. A high-strung, paranoid person can be extraordinarily successful if she channels that intensity into a productive field, while a person who grows up without any exposure to stress will probably be pretty useless when a crisis strikes. I am no biologist, but I suspect that labeling genes as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would seriously impoverish our understanding of them, and might have unfathomable consequences.

For example, my childhood involved the death of a close family member; it was the sort of trauma that most children don’t have to deal with. I would hazard to guess it was enough to alter a methyl group or two, and that little variation could be something I pass on to my own children. Naturally, I wish the death hadn’t happened. But it also is such an important part of my life that I can’t conceive of my life without that event. It led to pain and anguish, yes, and it’s hard to know just how far that sort of effect reaches. (It’s probably fruitless to even guess.) What is clear, however, is that it also led to growth—not necessarily good or bad, but significant to the extent that I’m stuck with it. Wiping that away with a pill would fundamentally alter who I am, and that prospect unsettles me deeply.

On the other hand, I do recognize that, in many, many ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky in life. I had a strong support network that many people do not have, and I can think of many traumas that are probably more deeply scarring than what I went through. Some people are fundamentally broken by grief or other pathologies they cannot escape, and a lecture from me about the cycle of highs and lows in life isn’t going to do them a bit of good. Is it possible to draw a line between the traumas and stresses that alter human livelihood, and those that don’t? To separate out the stress caused by a death in the family while holding on to the insights that come out of a cycle of grief? Those questions will need answers before this research can have any practical medical application. Humans being humans, we’re probably going to open up this Pandora’s Box no matter what; the question is one of how we go about opening it.

Alright, enough philosophy and ethics for one day—it’s time to cycle back out of the intellectual world, and into the world immediately at hand. I’m off to embroil myself in local politics, and then to do some more hockey history work.

The Water Freezes Over

A week after my last post about David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address, I fished a little book out of a pile of library donations, and started reading it while busing down to Minneapolis for the weekend. The book is called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, and it has a cheery-looking whale gamboling across the cover. (A Moby Dick allusion, as I soon learned.) I figured I was in for a pleasant little read about the timeless wisdom of classics that would leave me nodding in agreement but without any lasting insights. To my pleasant surprise, once the authors (a pair of philosophy professors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) dispense with the necessary background information, they head into a chapter entitled “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” in which the Kenyon College address figures prominently.

The authors then proceed to rip DFW’s argument to shreds.

Dreyfus and Kelly use a character in DFW’s The Pale King, Mitchell Drinion, to make their point. Drinion is DFW’s absurd hero: he has the most mind-numbing job imaginable, and he is not only at peace with it, but he is happy. Their critiques are threefold. First, it sets an incredibly high bar for happiness. It says humans need a very intense sense of awareness to be happy, but by adopting that awareness, people naturally become aware of how often they themselves fall short of the ideal. Second, the authors question the value of Drinion’s happiness. If he lives his entire life in a contented haze, can he even know that he is happy, with nothing to compare it to? Is the ideal state really one with no apparent variation in human emotion. Finally, DFW’s “ecstatic bliss” comes about through the careful harnessing of the human will, which is a rather dangerous place to expect to find it. Unless we’re talking to Nietzsche, the odds of success are near zero. The implied conclusion of the chapter is, ‘no wonder DFW killed himself!’

I’m not sure this is entirely fair to DFW. As with most all pop philosophy works (perhaps all philosophy?), the book needs a target; something for the authors to pit their argument against. While useful and often mostly true, this technique can lead the authors to over-simplify the views of their target, and set them up as something of a straw man. The Drinion character is an extreme example, probably deliberately set up to be ridiculous, and we need not accept all of DFW’s nihilistic premises, or go as far as Drinion does on the road to ecstatic bliss, to find something useful in his writing. My takeaway for “This Is Water” can stop at agreement with his views on worship and acknowledge an occasional need for greater awareness for my surroundings and leave it at that. It can still be a profound piece, even if I disagree with DFW’s over-emphasis on the will as opposed to other parts of the human psyche (soul?) and think we need to go through cycles of emotion to truly understand things.

At this point, a disclaimer is probably necessary: I’ve only ever read a few of DFW’s short stories. To be completely honest, I find his prose rather pedantic and filled with a lot of post-modern navel-gazing. It is possible that I am being very unfair to him in my judgments, and for a variety of reasons. He is brilliant, obviously, and if I were to take the effort to read Infinite Jest or The Pale King, I’m sure I’d wrestle with it and get something out of it.

At any rate, Dreyfus and Kelly’s book was a welcome addition to my thoughts on any number of themes, and did a very good job of putting words to the thoughts I’d often had when studying various strains of existential philosophy: “this is all very lovely,  but something about this view of humanity just isn’t quite complete.” I can know throw their views into the cycle and see how they hold up under further scrutiny.

If the rest of the book proves as compelling as this chapter, I’ll have more on it, though I also promise I will have some less esoteric content on the way soon, too.