Leap Year: Make Meaning Out of Time

Fresno Bee, March 1, 2020

Leap year reminds us of the importance of science and math. It is also an opportunity to ponder the meaning of time.

Our calendars don’t line up with the way the solar system works. We divide the year into 365 days. But our journey around the sun takes approximately 365.25 days.

So we add a day every four years. And since the discrepancy is not precise, we make further adjustments. 2000 was a leap year. But 2100, if we live that long, will not be.

Time measurement was originally a political and religious prerogative. The calendar reflects ancient religious ideas. The days of the week are named after pagan gods. Sunday belongs to the Sun. Saturday is for Saturn. Wednesday is Wotan’s day. Thursday is Thor’s day.

Political meaning is also woven in. July is named for Julius Caesar. August is named for Augustus. The holiday calendar is both religious and political. It includes President’s Day as well as Easter. These are days for civic duty and worship.

But religious and political authority give way to science when it comes to leap year. We trust that the astronomers did the math right. Maybe we should trust science on other issues—such as climate change and public health.

But science can only observe and calculate the passage of time. It cannot determine its meaning. What is the point, after all, of measuring time?

We measure to make meaning. Quantity matters. We ask how much, how many, and how long? The sciences are useful here. Economics quantifies time and money. Medical science advises about how much to eat and how long to exercise.

But science cannot answer the questions of why and what for. These are questions of quality. The doctors can help us live longer. But what is the point of a long life? The economists can help us make money. But what should we buy?

Eventually, the question of quality overshadows the question of quantity. We know that our days are numbered. But what shall we do with those days to make them worth living?

Science cannot say. To find an answer we turn to politics and religion, as well as poetry and philosophy. The question of quality takes us far beyond science.

Perhaps we should fill our time with love and beauty. Some argue that love transcends time. Shakespeare said that love is “not time’s fool.” It remains like a fixed star across the tempest of time.

Shakespeare saw time as a “bloody tyrant.” “Time’s pencil” scribbles on our faces. “Devouring time” makes war on beauty. Summer fades, roses die, and youth succumbs to “swift-footed time.”

For Shakespeare, love and art provide a glimpse of immortality, lifting us out of the flow of time. Art preserves youthful beauty in the eternal present, forever young and glowing. What should we do with our time? Shakespeare suggests we make love and make art.

A different suggestion is found in Plato and in Aristotle. They say that wisdom lifts us beyond the ravages of time. When we contemplate truth, we touch the eternal. What should we do with our time, according to the philosophers? They suggest we pursue wisdom.

Other poets and philosophers tell us that since our days are numbered, we should seize the day. Thoreau said that killing time does injury to eternity. We should make no compromise with time but live fully in each precious moment. To be here, now, immersed in nature’s wonder is another way to savor our constantly dwindling supply of days.

We seem to have wandered far from leap year. But we have actually circled back. When we discover that the calendar is a man-made, a kind of liberation dawns. If the year can be made to leap, then so can we.

Leap year reminds us that time is something we measure for our own purposes. Science shows that the sun and the seasons are fixed by natural laws. But the poets and philosophers teach that time is ours to enjoy. It is not merely a tyrant, as Shakespeare warned. It is also a gift that affords us the opportunity to make love, to make art, and to make meaning.

Pride causes powerful to fall

What causes the powerful to come to ruin? In a word, pride

Fresno Bee, May 19, 2017

At a graduation speech this week at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, President Trump warned, “the more righteous your fight, the more the opposition that you will face.” He advised, “Don’t give in, don’t back down.”

That is standard fare for graduation speeches. Indeed, unrelenting self-assertion helped President Trump get elected. Persistence and tenacity are virtues. But the same disposition can become the vice of obstinacy.

Much depends upon the righteousness of your cause. But in general, obstinate self-assertion brings the powerful to ruin. At least, that is the lesson of the great tragedies. The drama unfolding in Washington could be written by Sophocles or Shakespeare.

Political tragedy is a microcosm, a fascinating display of the common human affliction. We see our own foibles reflected in the flaws of the powerful. The perennial lesson is that we are all subject to tyrannical moods. We push more than we yield. And we arrogantly cling to our own ignorance.

OBSTINATE SELF-ASSERTION BRINGS THE POWERFUL TO RUIN.

The tragic chorus reminds us that human power is uncanny and strange. Our power creates the conditions for our own downfall. The more powerful we appear, the more blind and lame we become.

The problem is hubris, that fancy Greek word for arrogant pride. Hubris, the chorus explains, gives birth to tyrants. And tyrannical power begets hubris. Relentless pride, wanton ignorance, and unbridled ambition are the source of folly and crime. Shakespeare’s Macbeth warned, “vaulting ambition” overleaps itself. As the Bible put it, pride goeth before the fall.

Even a blind man can see that. In the Greek tragedies the blind prophet Tiresias makes the point. Everyone makes mistakes, he said. But good men yield when they are wrong. And they make amends.

The ancient tragedies also show that the cover-up is worse than the crime. A tyrant does not concede his failures. He never admits he is wrong. He lies and denies. And he blames the messenger for bad news.

The problem is power without restraint. As Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One solution is a system of legal checks and balances. The law can prevent abuses of power. But virtue requires self-restraint.

It also helps to reflect upon the nature of power and ambition. Shakespeare provides a clue, suggesting in Hamlet that the substance of ambition is the shadow of a dream. Power inflames desire and our sense of entitlement. The more we get, the more we want. But political power is ephemeral. It is nothing but the opinion of others.

The game of power requires a constant effort to keep the hot air blowing in your own preferred direction. And when the winds shift, as they always do, the tyrant rants and howls like old King Lear raving on the heath.

Pride makes us stubborn and irrational. The young prince in Antigone warned his father against being inflexible and unreasonable. He suggested that his father should relent—and listen and learn. King Creon, of course, ignores this advice. The family is destroyed. And the desolate king learns too late the lesson of moderation.

IT IS IN MODESTY, DECENCY, HARD WORK AND CARING RELATIONSHIPS THAT HAPPINESS IS FOUND.

Tragedies also show that wisdom can be found in unexpected places—in the voices of the powerless. Throughout Western literature, powerful men routinely ignore and degrade women. They do not listen to the blind or the young. In Shakespeare, the fool offers insight. In Greek tragedy, it is the chorus of the people who provide the voice of conscience.

Here, then, is a source of hope. Normal people—lowly, hard-working, ordinary people—possess a kind of wisdom and virtue that the powerful seem to lack. We, the people, can learn from observing the tempests of political life a lesson of how not to live. We ought to discover that “wisdom is the supreme part of happiness” as Sophocles explains. It is in modesty, decency, hard work, and caring relationships that happiness is found.

The powerful fret and strut for their hour upon the stage—and then are heard no more. What’s left is a tale seemingly told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Those immortal lines are Shakespeare’s. His poetry has lingered, as have the works of Sophocles. And here is another source of hope. Empires rise and fall. But beauty and wisdom endure.

http://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article151435597.html

Digital Immortality and the Promise of Eternal Life

Fresno Bee, April 3, 2015

Modern technology makes the Easter promise of eternal life look a bit old-fashioned. Businesses such as Eterni.me promise virtual immortality in the form of a “digital avatar” or “mind-clone.”IMG_3018

A mind-clone is a smart digital replica of your self, based upon a collection of your memories, thinking habits, and values. Future generations would be able to interact with your mind-clone as if they were interacting with you: hear your stories, get your advice, or ask for your blessing.

Advanced mind-clone technology would build a profile of you by tracking your preferences in music, videos, or news — just as Google and Amazon already do. The program would analyze your tastes, interests, and writing style. You could also upload value preferences and stories, training your clone to think and respond like you.

Your descendants could chat with your virtual avatar. You could program it, for example, to send birthday greetings to your grandchildren long after your death. If the technology works, it would be difficult for your grandchildren to tell the difference between you and your mind-clone in a chat-room or email exchange.

But is this really immortality? That depends. When we say that someone like Shakespeare has achieved immortality, we mean that his works and ideas endure. Maybe that’s all we mean by immortality. When viewed from the outside, the self is, after all, merely a collection of habits, actions and thoughts that are observed in the world. All we really know about the immortal bard is what he wrote down.

Shakespeare himself told us (in Sonnet 55) that what lives on against death and oblivion is “the living record of your memory.” As long as memories of you remain alive in someone’s mind, a part of you continues to exist. An interactive mind-clone would keep your memory “alive” in cyberspace.

But, most will protest, the self seems to be more than a collection of data piled high in defiance of the encroaching sands of time. From the inside, I experience my self as soulful conscious being. Death ends my consciousness, even if my mind-clone lingers in its small corner of the Internet.

Moreover, human relations are spiritual — an exchange of souls that is more than a mere transfer of data. An email from the virtual “you” would be a sad echo of genuine communication. From this perspective, digital immortality is a false promise.

As we spend more of our time in virtual reality, however, the spiritual side of things is being transformed into a digital alternative. What, after all, do you really know about the humanity of your Facebook friends besides the images they deposit online?

Leaving these existential questions behind, the ethical question remains: Should we pursue digital immortality? Answers depend upon the motivation for creating a mind-clone. Hope for immortality may be a narcissistic wish. Or it may be a celebration of love.

A narcissist may think he is so important that the future needs him, as if the loss of his point of view will make the universe worse. But it’s presumptuous to think that my great-grandchildren would care to have my mind-clone around, emailing them my opinions about the news, while they are busy leading lives I cannot imagine. On the other hand, it could be cool to have a virtual Shakespeare to consult when we need inspiration.

The best reasons to consider digital immortality are grounded in love. We, the living, may want a virtual clone of our dead loved ones, just as we want pictures and videos of them — as a way of keeping their memory alive. This technology could ease grief and mourning.

It may seem unhealthy to keep oneself focused on interactions with the dead. Chatting online with your dead spouse’s mind-clone may prevent you from moving forward. But this may not be so different from reading a poem written by the dead or whispering a word to the dead in silent prayer. What matters is the dosage and degree of our concern with the departed.

Our lives leave traces in the minds of those we love. That may be all that matters in terms of an afterlife — to be loved in the memories of those we leave behind. Beyond that, there are mysteries that the human mind and its technologies cannot fathom.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/04/03/4459250_fiala-on-ethics-digital-immortality.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Contemplating the arts

Take time to contemplate the arts in this trivial digital age

Fresno Bee September 6, 2014 

Poetry, philosophy, literature and art are uniquely human activities. Other animals play, sing and even dance. But no other animal contemplates its own existence.

IMG_1346 - Version 2
Philosopher Contemplating Death

In our quick digital era, one wonders whether there is time for contemplation. Speed and multitasking can undermine focus needed to study a poem, observe a work of art or digest a philosophical insight.

Our digital tools give us unprecedented opportunity to explore the humanities. We can download the great works of literature and philosophy and carry them with us in phones and tablets. We can publish our own reflections with the click of a mouse. Art works are easily copied and forwarded.

This could be a golden age of philosophical reflection and poetic insight. There are hidden backwaters of the Internet where poetry, philosophy and art flourish. But much of the mainstream flows in another direction. The Internet deluges us with foolish factoids, meaningless memes, pornographic pictures and vicious videos. The rising tide of trivia can easily sweep us away.

Our attention is divided by the pace and flow of information. Even conversation suffers: We text instead of call. We dread the spiraling buffer sign and multitask while we wait. Our attention bounces along among scattered bits of quickly moving data.

Speedy multitasking is not all bad. In some cases, a brief text is all you need. When you only want data, a quick download is great. The trivia passing through our gadgets can be surfed and skimmed.

But careful, slow and deliberate attention is important. Life’s most meaningful moments deserve our time and undivided attention: falling in love, giving birth, growing old, dying. Unhurried, sustained reflection is a mature human ability, as is the ability to listen, read and think.

It takes time and concentration to understand Shakespeare or Plato or Picasso. Deliberate, undivided effort is needed to write a poem, construct an argument or analyze a work of literature. The same intellectual skill is needed in the sciences, in law and in other fields. But the humanities are unique in forcing us to slow down, breathe deeply and contemplate.

Shakespeare once compared his love to a summer’s day. That’s a fact (download Sonnet 18 and you’ll see). But what does it mean? Summer days are slow and luxurious. Unfortunately, beauty fades, as does summer. Is there hope? Shakespeare hints that poetry holds beauty in place against the ravages of time.

Does the Internet also preserve us against swift-footed time? You could post Shakespeare’s sonnet on your website along with your other pictures and memes. But copying and pasting is not understanding. Meaning cannot be downloaded. There is no app for insight.

Good poetry is precise. Haiku can be inspiring. Shakespeare’s sonnets are 140 syllables long. Concise communication is a useful art. But we’ve shaved this down to tweets of 140 characters. And we’ve compressed the time we need to reflect upon the meaning of things, while filling the void with data.

Data transfer is to thinking as sex is to love. Human beings could exchange DNA in a quick genetic data dump. But love is much more than this. Love is a mysterious communion of souls haunted by a whiff of eternity. It involves contemplation: You linger, savor and dream about your beloved.

The same is true of poetry, philosophy and other attempts to fathom the human spirit. Lingering, savoring, dreaming and contemplating are the modes and moods of the humanities. Through them we rise above the manic din of data exchange and hover for a moment in defiance of swift-footed, devouring time.

Our electronic exchanges are like quick splashes of water that run off dry land without sinking in. Philosophy, poetry and the arts are stickier, gentler and denser. When given time and attention, they provide deep irrigation for the human spirit.

It is not surprising that the value of the humanities is best expressed in metaphor. Metaphors force us to slow down and think. It is not enough to simply state that the humanities are valuable in themselves — that’s a fact to be posted, tweeted and repeated. We also need to see that poetry, philosophy and art provide an oasis of contemplation in a desert of data.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/05/4107180_ethicstake-time-to-contemplate.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy