A Philosophical Guide to Coping with Life, Death, and Sour Grapes
Can you have hope in the face of death? For believers this is somewhat easier, but non-theists require a different set of philosophical tools.
Luc Bovens has been a professor of philosophy at London School of Economics and Political Science since 2003, but will take up a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. He graduated with a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Minnesota in 1990, taught in the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1990-2003. He was a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at the Center for Human Values of Princeton University in 2015-16 and has just finished research fellowship in the Hope and Optimism Project in Cornell University. His main areas of research are moral and political philosophy, philosophy of economics, philosophy of public policy, Bayesian epistemology, rational choice theory, and voting theory.
Luc Bovens: Well my name is Luc Bovens. I’m teaching at the London School of Economics and I’m actually going to make a move, I'm coming back to the States and I’ll take up a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the first of January. And last year or last fall I was in the Hope and Optimism Project in Cornell University and I was very excited to be part of this because I’m currently working on a book project. The book is called 'Coping: A Philosophical Guide'. So what I would like to do is actually bring out a lot of the work that I’ve been doing in moral psychology over the last 20 years and to put it in a format that is accessible to the public, to the general public.
And so the main idea of the book project is the following—well, let me start with this: there is this well-worn prayer of Niebuhr and it says that, 'God gave us the courage to change what we can change, and the serenity to accept what we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.'
And I think this is actually a false dichotomy, because there is something in between accepting the things that we can’t change and changing the things that we are able to change; having the courage to change the things that we are able to change. And what comes in between actually is precisely sort of having a kind of control over the mind. And now hoping is exactly the sort of thing that fits in the space in between courage and serenity.
You’re not changing the world and you’re not just merely accepting things. You’re developing some kind of attitude of coping with hardships, and that’s precisely, I think, what this hoping is all about. Now I think hoping is actually just one of the things that fits in the space between this courage and serenity.
Another thing that I’ve been exploring over the years is what’s often called sour grapes, right. Now sour grapes has a little bit of a bad rap but if you think about it, what you’re really doing—or what the fox is doing when he can’t reach for the grapes, and he turns his back and he says, “Oh, those grapes are sour,”—you can interpret this in many ways and actually when you think of this fable, it’s been written and rewritten in many ways. It may be the case that the fox just says, “Look, you know, these grapes are not ripe yet.” Then he’s actually changing his beliefs in order to deal with his frustration.
But in other versions he actually says, “Look, I don’t really like grapes,” so it seems like he’s changing his taste. He’s changing his desires. That’s a different thing. And then the third thing that the fox might be doing is he says, “Oh, you know, grapes are really for the lowlife animals in the woods.” Then he’s kind of framing the whole thing. So often I think when we’re trying to deal with hardships in life, we’re changing our beliefs, we’re changing our desires or we frame things differently. And depending on what you’re doing, these things are either more or less problematic. I think people often have problems with changing your beliefs at will. Whereas changing the frame with which you look at things in order to make things more acceptable, that seems to be a perfectly alright thing to do.
I mean at one point, actually going back to Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations'—see Marcus Aurelius had this history of spending a lot of time with soldiers in barracks where, really, where he wanted to be was in Rome, hanging out with people in high society. But he says, 'Look, when you find yourself in a situation like that you have to come to love the people with whom your fate is cast. And you have to love them truly.'
So the idea is he changes his desires. He changes the way that he frames the situation in order to make it acceptable to him. And again that’s a form of coping.
So I’m doing a chapter on hoping. I’m doing a chapter on coping. And then I also try to explore these ideas in context where it seems like there’s a lot of need for them. Like one thing I’m doing currently is I’m thinking about how it is that people cope with death. And there is of course a lot of talk of hoping for salvation and an afterlife and so on, but I really want to think about the idea of what kind of hopes, what kind of secular hopes, that we can have in the face of death.
And so I try to look at various components and sort of make a taxonomy of the sort of hopes that people have in the face of death.
Like for one thing, I think people hope that their life was worthwhile somehow. And I started thinking about this because a friend of mine, he’s in his late seventies right now, he was a medical doctor and he is currently in his retirement working on a family tree. And he says to me at a certain point, he says, “You know, the only thing that I’m proud about in my life is this family tree that I made.”
And I said, well how is this possible? I mean look, being a philosopher we’re kind of envious of the medical profession in a way because it seems so easy for them to answer the question, “Do you do something meaningful in life?"
I said, “Well what about your patients?” And he says, “Oh, my patients,” he says, “you know, they’re all dead or they’re going to die soon anyway.” And I thought that was really interesting because it seems like the only thing that he thought would make his life worthwhile are things that would remain past his death. And, to me, family trees and genealogy and so on is a little bit like train-spotting so I can’t get too excited about it, but I’m definitely envious of people who have spent their life in the medical profession.
So then I started thinking about, “How is it that we hope that our lives will be worthwhile?” And it seems to me that there is this difference between thinking about a worthwhile life in terms of projects that will extend over the moment of your death versus thinking about having done great things in life which can be purely ephemeral.
So I’m thinking about a DJ who threw fantastic parties. You could say, 'Look, nothing of it remains,' but at the same time that party, that night, that was a fantastic thing to do.
Whereas artists in general think about leaving a legacy that goes beyond their death. There’s an interesting quote by Keats which, you know, Keats died young of TB, and when he realizes that he’s going to die, then he says, “I haven’t been able to make a mark in life,” and that bothered him. But he says, “I’ve always lived my life according to an aesthetic principle.” And I think that’s quite interesting too, because you can think of your life being worthwhile in terms of ephemeral projects that you’ve done, in terms of projects that will extend over your death, but also in terms of living in a particular mode, right. Living a particular style of life. Maybe a life of self-forgetfulness. Maybe a life of other-orientedness or, in the case of Keats, living a life in accordance with an aesthetic principle. So that’s sort of the idea of hoping that you’ve lived a worthwhile life. But I think there’s other hopes that we have too. Other secular hopes that we have too. In general, we just have hopes for the future, right. I mean, there is this saying, you know: 'After me, the downfall,' but we all feel like there’s something wrong with that. You should have hopes for a better future. In addition to that, I think we also hope not just to have lived well but also we hope to die well.
Now that goes back all the way to Aristotle. You know Aristotle actually thought that dying on the battlefield, that was really something to strive for. And this may seem a little bit outdated to us but it’s interesting when you notice his justification for it. So he says, 'It’s a good thing to die on the battlefield because there you can show off your prowess and you can also be doing something noble, something that would have an effect after your life.' And I think people like this idea of dying in a way that is in accordance with the way that they’ve lived. And so we want to live our lives, and I think we want to die in a way that is reflective of the way that we lived and we want to leave some kind of legacy as well towards the future. There’s a lot of interesting debate going on recently in the Netherlands—I mean euthanasia is legalized in the Netherlands—but the debate right now is whether, if somebody gets a diagnosis of cancer, whether they can have a very early euthanasia, because of they wait too long none of their organs will be any good anymore. And so they ask to be euthanized earlier because they want to be organ donors. And it’s the same thing: you want your death to be worthwhile in some way.
Life throws us curveballs that test our ability to cope, but perhaps none is more curvy than the end of life itself. Philosopher Luc Bovens examines the idea of secular hope, the forms it takes, and the function of it. He asks: what does it mean to live a meaningful life, and is it possible to die as well as you lived?
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In ancient Greece, the Olympics were never solely about the athletes themselves.
Because of a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2021 Olympics will unfold in a stadium absent the eyes, ears and voices of a once-anticipated 68,000 ticket holders from around the world.
Events during the intervening days will likewise occur in silent arenas missing the hundreds of thousands of spectators who paid US$815 million for their now-useless tickets.
After 48 years teaching classics, I can't help but wonder what the Greeks – who invented the Games nearly 3,000 years ago, in 776 B.C. – would make of such a ghostly version of their Olympic festival.
In many ways, they'd view the prospect as absurd.
In ancient Greece, the Olympics were never solely about the athletes themselves; instead, the heart and soul of the festival was the experience shared by all who attended. Every four years, athletes and spectators traveled from far-flung corners of the Greek-speaking world to Olympia, lured by a longing for contact with their compatriots and their gods.
In the shadow of dreams
For the Greeks, during five days in the late-summer heat, two worlds miraculously merged at Olympia: the domain of everyday life, with its human limits, and a supernatural sphere from the days superior beings, gods and heroes populated Earth.
Greek athletics, like today's, plunged participants into performances that pushed the envelope of human ability to its breaking point. But to the Greeks, the cauldron of competition could trigger revelations in which ordinary mortals might briefly intermingle with the extraordinary immortals.
The poet Pindar, famous for the victory songs he composed for winners at Olympia, captured this sort of transcendent moment when he wrote, “Humans are creatures of a day. But what is humankind? What is it not? A human is just the shadow of a dream – but when a flash of light from Zeus comes down, a shining light falls on humans and their lifetime can be sweet as honey."
However, these epiphanies could occur only if witnesses were physically present to immerse themselves – and share in – the spine-tingling flirtation with the divine.
Simply put, Greek athletics and religious experience were inseparable.
At Olympia, both athletes and spectators were making a pilgrimage to a sacred place. A modern Olympics can legitimately take place in any city selected by the International Olympic Committee. But the ancient games could occur in only one location in western Greece. The most profoundly moving events didn't even occur in the stadium that accommodated 40,000 or in the wrestling and boxing arenas.
Instead, they took place in a grove called the Althis, where Hercules is said to have first erected an altar, sacrificed oxen to Zeus and planted a wild olive tree. Easily half the events during the festival engrossed spectators not in feats like discus, javelin, long jump, foot race and wrestling, but in feasts where animals were sacrificed to gods in heaven and long-dead heroes whose spirits still lingered.
On the evening of the second day, thousands gathered in the Althis to reenact the funeral rites of Pelops, a human hero who once raced a chariot to win a local chief's daughter. But the climactic sacrifice was on the morning of the third day at the Great Altar of Zeus, a mound of plastered ashes from previous sacrifices that stood 22 feet tall and 125 feet around. In a ritual called the hecatomb, 100 bulls were slaughtered and their thigh bones, wrapped in fat, burned atop the altar so that the rising smoke and aroma would reach the sky where Zeus could savor it.
No doubt many a spectator shivered at the thought of Zeus hovering above them, smiling and remembering Hercules' first sacrifice.
Just a few yards from the Great Altar another, more visual encounter with the god awaited. In the Temple of Zeus, which was erected around 468 to 456 B.C., stood a colossal image, 40 feet high, of the god on a throne, his skin carved from ivory and his clothing made of gold. In one hand he held the elusive goddess of victory, Nike, and in the other a staff on which his sacred bird, the eagle, perched. The towering statue was reflected in a shimmering pool of olive oil surrounding it.
During events, the athletes performed in the nude, imitating heroic figures like Hercules, Theseus or Achilles, who all crossed the dividing line between human and superhuman and were usually represented nude in painting and sculpture.
The athletes' nudity declared to spectators that in this holy place, contestants hoped to reenact, in the ritual of sport, the shudder of contact with divinity. In the Althis stood a forest of hundreds of nude statues of men and boys, all previous victors whose images set the bar for aspiring newcomers.
“There are a lot of truly marvelous things one can see and hear about in Greece," the Greek travel writer Pausanias noted in the second century B.C., “but there is something unique about how the divine is encountered at … the games at Olympia."
Communion and community
The Greeks lived in roughly 1,500 to 2,000 small-scale states scattered across the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.
Since sea travel in summertime was the only viable way to cross this fragile geographical web, the Olympics might entice a Greek living in Southern Europe and another residing in modern-day Ukraine to interact briefly in a festival celebrating not only Zeus and Heracles but also the Hellenic language and culture that produced them.
Besides athletes, poets, philosophers and orators came to perform before crowds that included politicians and businessmen, with everyone communing in an “oceanic feeling" of what it meant to be momentarily united as Greeks.
Now, there's no way we could explain the miracle of TV to the Greeks and how its electronic eye recruits millions of spectators to the modern games by proxy. But visitors to Olympia engaged in a distinct type of spectating.
The ordinary Greek word for someone who observes – “theatês" – connects not only to “theater" but also to “theôria," a special kind of seeing that requires a journey from home to a place where something wondrous unfolds. Theôria opens a door into the sacred, whether it's visiting an oracle or participating in a religious cult.
Attending an athletic-religious festival like the Olympics transformed an ordinary spectator, a theatês, into a theôros – a witness observing the sacred, an ambassador reporting home the wonders observed abroad.
It's hard to imagine TV images from Tokyo achieving similar ends.
No matter how many world records are broken and unprecedented feats accomplished at the 2020 games, the empty arenas will attract no gods or genuine heroes: The Tokyo games are even less enchanted than previous modern games.
But while medal counts will confer fleeting glory on some nations and disappointing shame on others, perhaps a dramatic moment or two might unite athletes and TV viewers in an oceanic feeling of what it means to be “kosmopolitai," citizens of the world, celebrants of the wonder of what it means to be human – and perhaps, briefly, superhuman as well.
The ancient Greeks wouldn't recognize some aspects of the modern Olympics.
Vincent Farenga, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
A new brain imaging study explored how different levels of the brain's excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters are linked to math abilities.
- Glutamate and GABA are neurotransmitters that help regulate brain activity.
- Scientists have long known that both are important to learning and neuroplasticity, but their relationship to acquiring complex cognitive skills like math has remained unclear.
- The new study shows that having certain levels of these neurotransmitters predict math performance, but that these levels switch with age.
Why do roughly one in five people find math especially difficult?
You might blame teaching methods, which some argue explains why the U.S. lags behind other countries in standardized math test scores. You could point to math anxiety, which affects about 20 percent of students and 25 percent of teachers, according to surveys. And there are also medical conditions that make math difficult, such as dyscalculia, a learning disability that disrupts the normal development of arithmetic skills.
But another explanation centers on neurotransmitters. In a new study published in PLOS Biology, researchers explored how the brain's levels of GABA and glutamate relate to math abilities over time in students of varying ages. The results showed that levels of these neurotransmitters can predict students' performance on math tests. However, this relationship seems to flip as people get older.
GABA and glutamate are responsible for regulating brain activity. In the mature brain, GABA is the brain's main inhibitory neurotransmitter, helping to block impulses between nerve cells in the brain, which can calm feelings of stress, anxiety, or fear. GABA is made from glutamate, the brain's major excitatory neurotransmitter that helps send signals throughout the central nervous system.
Researchers have long known that these neurotransmitters play crucial roles in learning, development, and neuroplasticity. That is partly because they are thought to help trigger developmental windows (or "sensitive periods") during which neural systems become more plastic and better able to acquire certain cognitive skills.
"Importantly, sensitive periods vary for different functions, with relatively simple abilities (e.g., sensorimotor integration) occurring earlier in development, while the sensitive period for acquiring more complex cognitive functions extends into the third decade of life," the researchers wrote.
GABA, glutamate, and math
Still, the exact relationship between GABA, glutamate, and complex cognitive functions has remained unclear. The new study explored that relationship by focusing on associations between the neurotransmitters and math abilities, which "provides a unique cognitive model to examine these questions due to its protracted skill acquisition period that starts already from early childhood and can continue for nearly two decades," the researchers wrote.
For the study, the researchers measured levels of GABA and glutamate in the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) of 255 students, ranging from primary school to college. The participants completed a math test as their brains were imaged. About a year and a half later, the participants repeated the same process.
"The longitudinal design allowed us to further examine whether neurotransmitter concentration is linked to MA [mathematical abilities] as well as predict MA in the future," the researchers wrote. "Crucially, adopting this design allowed us to discern the selective effect of glutamate and GABA in response to natural (i.e., learning in school) rather than artificial environmental stimulation, thus allowing us to test the knowledge gained from lab-based experiments in high ecological settings."
The results suggest that GABA and glutamate play an important role in math abilities, but that the dynamic switches with age. For the young participants, higher GABA levels in the IPS were associated with higher scores on math tests. The opposite was observed among older students: higher glutamate levels correlated with higher scores. Both results held true on subsequent math tests.
Although the study sheds light on how neurotransmitter levels at different stages of development contribute to learning some cognitive skills, like math, the researchers noted that acquiring other skills may involve different processes.
"Our findings may also highlight a general principle that the developmental dynamics of regional excitation and inhibition levels in regulating the sensitive period and plasticity of a given high-level cognitive function (i.e., MA) may be different compared to another high-level cognitive function (i.e., general intelligence) that draws on similar, albeit not identical, cognitive and neural mechanisms," they wrote.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Do our thoughts have any meaning whatsoever?
- Epiphenomenalism is the idea that our conscious minds serve no role in affecting the physical world.
- On the contrary, our thoughts are a causally irrelevant byproduct of physical processes that are occurring inside of our brains.
- According to epiphenomenalism, we are like children pretending to drive a car — it can be great fun, but we are really not in charge.
What if you don't matter? What if all of your thoughts, precious feelings, great dreams, and terrible fears are completely, utterly, spectacularly irrelevant? Might it be that all of your mental life is just some pointless spectator, looking on as your body does the important stuff of keeping you alive and running about? What actually is the point of a thought?
This is the view of "epiphenomenalism," and it might just be one of the most disturbing ideas in all of philosophy.
The pointless chiming of the clock
On any given day, we will make thousands of decisions and perform countless actions. We will move our legs to walk, open our mouths to eat, smile at our friends, kiss our loved ones, and so on. Today, we know enough about neuroscience and physiology to give a complete and full account of how this happens. We can point to the parts of the brain that activate, the route the nerve signals will take up and down the body, the way the muscles will contract, and how the body will react. We can, in short, give a full physical account of everything we do.
The question, then, is: what is the point of our consciousness? If we can explain all of our behavior quite happily (or "sufficiently" as philosophers like to say) with physical causes, what is there left for our thoughts to do?
Anthropologist Thomas Huxley argued that our thoughts are a bit like a clock's chime at the hour. It makes a sound, but it makes no difference at all to the time. Likewise, our thoughts and subjective feelings might be very nice and appear very special to us, but they are completely uninvolved.
The problem of mind-body dualism
This all stems from a key problem of dualism, which is the philosophical idea that the mind and body are different things. There is something intuitive to the idea. When I imagine a flying dragon with fiery breath and leathery wings, that is entirely different from the physical world of lizards, candles, and bats. Or, put another way, you cannot touch with your finger or cut with a knife the stuff that happens in your head. But we don't like believing that our thoughts don't exist. So, what are they?
The problem in dualism is understanding how something mental, nonphysical, and subjective possibly could affect the physical world and especially my physical body. Yet, it clearly happens. For instance, if I want a cupcake, I make my hand move toward it.
So, how can the immaterial affect the material? This "problem of causal interaction" is not easily resolved, and so some philosophers prefer the epiphenomenalist response, "Perhaps our minds don't do anything." If we want to retain the idea that our minds exist but in a completely different way as the physical world, then it might be more palatable to jettison the idea that they do anything at all.
Integrated information theory
Then, what is the point of consciousness? There are some, such as neuroscientist Daniel De Haan and philosophers Giulio Tononi and Peter Godfrey-Smith, who argue that consciousness can best be explained by "integrated information theory."
In this theory, consciousness is something that emerges from the sum of our cognitive processes — or, more specifically, the "capacity of a system to integrate information," as Tononi writes. In other words, consciousness is a net product of all the other things our mind is doing, such as synchronizing sensory inputs, focusing on specific objects, accessing various types of memory, and so on. The mind is an overseer at the center of a huge web and is the result or byproduct of all the incredibly complex things it needs to do.
But this kind of "emergentist" theory (since the mind "emerges" from its operations) does leave us with some epiphenomenal questions. It seems to suggest that the mind does exist but that it can be fully explained and accounted for by other physical processes. For instance, if we suppose our consciousness is the product of our complex and various sensory inputs, as Godfrey-Smith offers, then what does conscious thought actually add to the equation that our sight, smell, interoception, and so on are not already doing? By analogy, if a "traffic jam" is just the term for a collection of stationary cars and trucks, what does the concept "traffic jam" add that all those vehicles don't already provide? A traffic jam has no causal role to play.
This is not to say that consciousness is a mistake or without value. After all, without it, I would not be me and you would not be you. Pleasure would not exist. There would be no world at all. We cannot even imagine a life without consciousness. And epiphenomenalism does believe that physical events, like our synaptic sparks and neuronal interactions, do cause our mental events.
But if epiphenomenalism is correct, it means that our thoughts don't add anything to the physical world that isn't already ongoing. It means that we are locked in our heads. All the thoughts and feelings are ultimately pointless or nonsense. We are like children pretending to drive a car — it can be great fun, but we are really not in charge.