“For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer

One morning recently I woke up and found I no longer wanted to eat meat. It seemed a sudden and unaccountable distaste. I had seen the images and read the books decrying animal slaughter over the years, and they had provoked the predictable sense of horror but no change in my eating habits. Why would I now, for no apparent reason, see things differently?

I’ve asked myself this question, even hoping that my newly acquired aversion would dissipate. I’ve always found vegetarians annoying. There’s nothing that can reduce the pleasure of a steak dinner like sitting opposite someone eating stir fried vegetables. I didn’t want to be the person who got the vegetarian option at the wedding and whose entrees were served first, with the kosher meals, on the airplane. I don’t travel in vegetarian circles. Sure, people… More…

For several decades in the early 20th century, it looked like mysticism, mathematics, physics, philosophy, and religion would become cozy roommates. Physicists, excited by the new quantum arena, were looking for God in the particles. Mathematicians were pondering the infinite. The best minds from Einstein down were embracing the idea of God. It didn’t last long, and science and math have returned to being secular endeavors, but a spate of new books on this time when scientists were pondering the infinite suggests that perhaps the seemingly separate worlds are coming back together.

Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor. Harvard University Press. 256 pages. $25.95 Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung by Arthur I. Miller. Norton Press. 368 pages. $27.95

The story… More…

 

Back in the olden days, philosophers thought a lot about water. Thales (sometimes considered the first philosopher) went out on a limb and proclaimed that “all is water.” This was a gutsy move given the fact that a simple walk around the block will convince most human beings that all is, in fact, not water. But Thales was after something more profound. He was trying to make a distinction between the “really real” and the way things seem, the way things appear. Water is the foundation, he was saying, water is what its all about. Such a distinction pretty much defined the act of philosophizing from then on.

The next guy to make a big claim about water was Heraclitus. He mentioned, notoriously, that you can’t step into the same river twice. For Heraclitus, all was not water…. More…

Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable that Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s cynical theologies reigned for as long as they did. Luther was a reformer, yes, but also rabidly anti-intellectual. Luther’s desire to do away with the teaching of philosophy, however, could never top Calvin’s warped worldview, which revolved around the idea of predestination. He believed that God had already selected those who would be saved. If you were good, it was not of your own doing, but because you were one of the chosen. If you were a sinner, well, there was nothing you could do about it — you were going to go to Hell no matter how much you repented or changed your ways. Calvin thought so little of mankind that he once wrote, “The best is not to be born, one should mourn and weep at births and rejoice at funerals.”

 

Philosophy is disappearing from our college curricula. Our students are graduating without first being stuffed with Plato and Descartes and Hegel. While we used to teach students critical thinking through philosophy, we have replaced the Socratic method with the scientific method. Really, the idea of 19-year-olds discussing Truth and Beauty and Love seems so decadent these days, doesn’t it? It certainly does to those running our universities. But that’s the best age at which to wrestle abstract concepts —  the world is new and terrifying, yet you’re (hopefully) still coddled enough to find the time to read Fear and Trembling.

When you’re 30 and your brain is preoccupied with mundane things like making money, cooking dinner, and doing the dishes, sitting down with Plato to contemplate the nature of love just for kicks feels a little absurd. I dropped out of college before I could get around… More…

 

We live in an age of autobiography, one in which young writers cannot even bother to change people’s names to create a novel, in which a story being true is a greater virtue than being well written, or insightful, or interesting.

I have a few unyielding standards for a memoir: Either your book must be exceptionally written (a trait hard to find in memoirs these days) or you must have done something exceptional. You must have traveled to the underground or the heavens and come back with fire or golden apples or at least a little wisdom. It can’t just be, “Daddy hit me, mommy got cancer” — everyone has a sad story, and it is possible to go through a trauma or experience something significant without gaining any insight.

You would think that the spiritual memoir would… More…

Last month, anthropologist Helen Fisher opened a speech at the Economic Summit in Davos with, “I am definitely not a feminist.” The irony of the situation was lost on her apparently. The word “feminist” has become almost meaningless. Some people will twist themselves into knots trying to avoid the label, and others will wield it to justify all sorts of personal behavior. In Lisa Belkin’s infamous New York Times Magazine profile “The Opt-Out Revolution,” about well-educated women who decided to stay home to raise children, a woman named Jeannie Tarkenton has this to say about feminism: “Women today, if we think about feminism at all, we see it as a battle fought for ‘the choice.’ For us, the freedom to choose work if we want to work is the feminist strain in our lives.”

First-wave feminists threw bombs and died on hunger strikes to get the vote. Today’s… More…

I came to the current religion debates a bored man. Started by the discussions around “intelligent design” and by the books of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris (The Four Horsemen), the debate seemed to pit two irreconcilable views against one another, both vying for an empty prize. Religion, I gathered, will always have its place, as will the practices of science and rational inquiry. Perhaps one day some other arrangement, some other separation of powers, will come about, but it won’t be any time soon, and it will happen when no one is looking. It will happen on its own time, with the lazy mastodon movements of history, which lumbers and rarely sprints.

It has also often struck me in some inchoate way that while the basic tenets and practices of any specific religion aren’t terribly impressive, the intellectual dilemma of faith and faithlessness has something to it. Sure, religion… More…

The philosopher Richard Rorty is dead. These things happen. He’d have been the first person to admit it. But now that he’s dead it makes sense to ask how successful he was in carrying his bugbear to the grave along with him. That bugbear was philosophy itself, which, although most of his books are filed in that category, Rorty was essentially convinced had become a meaningless enterprise.

He wasn’t alone in this. Philosophers have been in the business of some kind of combined form of patricide and suicide for a long time now. Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger come immediately to mind. There are many others. Rorty thought that philosophy was dead — or at least in the final stages of a terminal illness — because the thing we call philosophy is essentially the impulse to find continuities. When we’re doing philosophy we’re looking for the things that are always true…. More…