Thursday, July 28, 2016

A personal topic

The Last Walk 1

            Life overtakes philosophy.  For two years I have been reading and thinking about the virtue of hope.  I’ve posted dozens of hope essays on my blog and read two papers at professional philosophy conferences.  Eventually, I will write a book on this virtue.  But moral philosophy is practical (a theme in all my books in on the virtues, beginning with Learning to Love).  It turns out that I am exploring hope in a very personal way.
Background: In 2013 my wife Karen was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, involving three types of cancer cells: endometrial, serous and clear cell.  The first is most common, the second and third more dangerous.  She underwent surgery in September, followed by many weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.  The treatment regimen lasted until April 2014.  Chemotherapy stole her hair, but in Karen’s experience radiation therapy was much harder, leaving her with intestinal problems for months afterward.  Still, by summer 2014 she was back at work as a psychological disability examiner.  And she was 62.  She decided to retire.
            That fall Karen began a new career as a freelance photographer.  She took art photos and portrait photos.  She took photography courses, bought lots of good equipment, and redecorated our living room into a studio.  She displayed photos in local coffee shops.
            Throughout 2015 “gut” problems persisted.  In the decade before her surgery, Karen had enjoyed walking for exercise, going for long (45 minute) vigorous walks in various neighborhoods.  But “bowel insecurity” put an end to that.  Late in 2015 she experimented with indoor walks at the local Fred Meyer.
            After the cancer treatments of 13-14, Karen had regular follow-up visits with her oncologist.  At the beginning of 2016, her blood work showed no signs of the cancer.  Karen’s doctor said it was as if she had reached mile 21 of a 26-mile marathon.  She might really be cancer free.
            In February 2016 Karen began experiencing back pain; later, leg pain as well.  Her Fred Meyer walks became too painful to continue.  There also seemed to be something wrong with her sinuses; the aroma of most foods became nauseating, which meant that she began eating less.  These symptoms all worsened gradually.  Doctors prescribed pain medications and ordered CT scans.
            Here we are now, summer 2016.
An urgent message from Karen’s GP: come and see me right away.  The next day, we learned cancer had returned.  Four days later we met with the oncologist and Karen was immediately started on chemotherapy.  There will be no surgery to remove cancer, since it has spread to too many lymph nodes.  The next day, a urologist scheduled Karen for a minor procedure to insert a stent at a place where swollen lymph nodes impeded her ureter.
The oncologist gave straightforward answers to our questions.  There is a very small probability that chemotherapy alone can kill the cancer.  Much more likely, chemotherapy will let us “manage” or “control” the cancer.  “Control” in this context means knocking it back, killing many of the rogue cells.  But we should expect, he said, that each round of chemo (using different drugs at different stages) would “train” the cancer to evade the drugs’ power.  Short of a miracle, the cancer will take Karen’s life, most likely in 2-5 years.
So here we are, two middle-aged people, beginning our last “walk” together.  We hope that aggressive pain management might permit literal walks again.  We look back on my year long sabbatical in 2007-08 as a highlight of our marriage; we took many walks that year.
With Karen’s permission, I have decided not to keep our story secret.  I do not intend to make a spectacle of it.  I will occasionally post updates on our experience.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Wright on Hope

How Should We Hope?  Advice #5

            In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright, a bishop in the Church of England, offers a fifth advice for hope.  He says, in brief, that we should adopt the hope of first century Christians.  The problem is that people are generally ignorant of Christian doctrine concerning hope.  It’s not that they have rejected Christian hope; they have only a vague and inaccurate idea what it is.  The first step toward genuine hope is to learn what the New Testament actually teaches about the future.
            Wright starts with the resurrection of Jesus.  Is this surprising?  It shouldn’t be.  The Christian doctrine for the future cannot be understood apart from the central Christian claim about the past.  It is a fact that the first century Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus.  How we explain that fact is a matter of dispute.  Wright argues the best explanation is that Jesus really rose.  Be that as it may, however one explains the fact of first century Christian belief, we need to see that the first Christians’ doctrine of hope is inextricable from their belief that Jesus had been raised. 
It is not surprising that if people don’t believe in the resurrection, they’ll misunderstand Christian hope.  Wright argues that is exactly what we find in our time.  All our earthly hopes must eventually confront the problem of death.  The various ways a culture deals with death reveals much about its hopes.  Wright cites hymns, popular songs, sermons, obituary notices, and many other details that indicate contemporary attitudes toward death. 
            First, there is the materialist doctrine of death.  On this view, death is simply the end of life.  A person might hope to be remembered by her friends or family, but if she is she won’t know it.  Artists might hope their poems or pictures will be admired by future generations, but it’s not very likely—and again, the artist will never know.
            Some people, including some materialists, devote great energy to social or political movements aimed at making life better for people.  Wright clearly approves of some of these efforts.  But there is only impersonal hope here, since the reformer will never see the distant fruit of his labor.
Second, some people hold a pantheist/spiritualist view of death.  On this view, at death the individual melds into the universal spirit.  Wright quotes funeral poems and sermons that remind listeners the beloved departed is with them in the wind, earth, light, etc.  Sometimes this view is expressed in more overtly Hindu terms; the dead will be reincarnated in future living things.
Third, there are a variety of Platonist views.  On these views, a person’s soul—that is, the real person—leaves behind the physical body when he dies.  The soul goes to be with God in heaven.  This Platonist doctrine is often presented and believed as the Christian view, so much that “I’ll Fly Away” is taken as a song expressing Christian hope.
Some people combine features of these ideas, and there are plenty of others.  Given the pervasiveness of such ideas, people may find themselves surprised by the New Testament doctrine of hope.
1.                    First century Christians believed that since God raised Jesus, he would raise them.  There is a difference between “I’ll fly away” and “Someday I will rise.”  It is possible to combine the two notions: at death, my soul flies to heaven AND later, God raises my body.  This innovation came along centuries later; we find it explicit in Thomas Aquinas.  Some say it is implicit in the Bible.  Maybe.  It is clear that over time Christians stopped thinking much about resurrection and consoled themselves with escape from this world.
2.                    First century Christians believed that Jesus was going to come back.  The Son of God who suffered and died “for us” would return.  At various times in church history, Christians have embarrassed their movement by predicting Jesus’ return at a date certain.  We might be tempted to downplay the “second coming.”  We shouldn’t.  The return of Jesus is clearly a part of Christian hope.
3.                    First century Christians believed that Jesus was going to bring the Kingdom of God.  Wright points out that as long as we hope to “fly away” we won’t hope for the Kingdom to come.  Notice the words: “bring” and “come.”  The Kingdom of God will be a kingdom here, not there.  Wright gives much attention to this point.  Since our hope is that Jesus will bring the Kingdom in the future, we ought to live as citizens of that Kingdom now.  Christian hope has implications for ethics.
4.                    First century Christians believed in “a new heaven and a new earth” that would last forever.  Yes: there is a sense in which Christian hope looks forward to eternal life “in heaven.”  But we must guard against imagining heaven divorced from the Kingdom and the new earth.

Wright argues that Christian hope is a bracing and lively option for 21st century people.  Why not be surprised?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Comparing Advices

How Should We Hope? Advice #4

            A few months ago I introduced ideas from Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. (See Story and Meaning posts for March 3, 10, and 24, 2016.)  Today I recall some of that material in order to compare Lear’s advice about hope with advices from Simon Critchley and Adrienne Martin.
            Lear says that people may hope for good futures even in cases of cultural devastation.  Superficially, this stands in stark contrast to Critchley’s advice to “abandon (almost) all hope”; i.e. to limit our hopes, particularly our hopes for political or social goods, to what is realistic.  Lear encourages us to hope despite the worst things imaginable, while Critchley warns against unreasonable hopes, especially if those unrealistic hopes determine policy choices.
            On closer examination, though, Critchley and Lear’s advices may complement each other.
            Chief Plenty Coups believed the Crow people faced an oncoming storm, a storm that would level all the “trees of the forest” (i.e. various native peoples).  The coming of Europeans to the Great Plains would end the traditional Crow way of life.  The very concepts the Crow used to describe a good life would be robbed of their thick cultural meanings.  The Crow people would have to live on a reservation, adapt to white schools, and obey laws established by the invaders.  Courage, a quintessential virtue for a Crow warrior, would no longer be expressed in battle, by planting a coup-stick, or by raiding hostile tribes.  Courage might have to be “thinned” down into a willingness to face an uncertain future.  In spite of all this, Plenty Coups held out the hope that the Crow could weather the storm and still be Crow. 
            What might Critchley say about this?  Obviously, I don’t know what he would say, but it seems he might approve of much of Lear’s thinking while defending his own demand for realism.
            Of first importance, Critchley might say, Plenty Coups (and the Crow elders who interpreted and validated Plenty Coups’ visions) offered a realistic hope.  Suppose Plenty Coups had offered his people a different hope, hope for victory over the invading Europeans.  Certainly many Native American leaders preached such hope at various points in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  They may have known that the whites outnumbered their people, and they may have realized that the whites’ factories and inventions gave the invaders more powerful weapons.  Nevertheless, they offered hope for victory.  Critchley might point out that such hopes led to disaster.
            To further his case, Critchley might adopt the language of Adrienne Martin’s “incorporation thesis” to describe this bad hope.  Native American leaders who preached hope of victory probably acknowledged that the odds were against them.  We can easily imagine such chiefs admitting that their chances of defeating the whites were small.  However, on the “incorporation thesis,” so long as the desired good is possible, we may then consider that the desired good is so practically important that we license ourselves to incorporate that good into our lives.  Critchley could argue that Martin’s incorporation thesis, applied to Native American leaders in the nineteenth century, would have done little to prevent disastrous policies based on unrealistic hope.
            Aside: Martin could defend her theory.  When we license ourselves to hope (e.g. a patient hopes that the experimental drug will cure the disease), we do not deceive ourselves about the probability of success.  Martin explicitly says it is wise to make a “back-up plan” in case the hoped for event does not occur.  How the notion of back-up plan might apply to Native American leaders in Plenty Coups’ situation is unclear.
            Critchley might conclude that he has no objection to “radical” hope so long as one’s policy decisions are based on realism rather than hope.  It is permissible, even admirable, that Plenty Coups preached a message of hope to his people—but only because that hope was grounded on the firm recognition that the “storm” could not be avoided.  In the late 1800s Native American chiefs could do nothing to stop the cultural devastation of their peoples.  Plenty Coups was nearly alone among Native American leaders in that his radical hope was also realistic.  In contrast, the “transformational” hope that the 2008 Obama campaign would help produce a post-racial American was both unrealistic and harmful.
            Jonathan Lear might agree with Critchley in this: Plenty Coups’ radical hope was not unrealistic.  But he might also object that Plenty Coups did base policy recommendations on his hope.  Plenty Coups urged his people to learn farming.  He sought out schools for the reservation and encouraged Crow children to attend them.  He pushed his people to obey laws established by whites.  He did all this in hope that the Crow would still be Crow.  He fought hard, by legal and legislative means, to keep traditional Crow lands in Crow hands.  Lear would argue that radical hope helped the people of the Chickadee to weather the storm better than other tribes.
            Stepping back from what Critchley, Martin, or Lear might say (and they would undoubtedly have much more to say), it seems that there is no necessary conflict between them.  (1) We ought to be realistic.  Probably the experimental drug will not work.  The European invasion of the 18th and 19th centuries could not be stopped. (2) In spite of dismal prospects, we may still hope for a good future after the storm.  We may not know what that good future will look like, but (as Lear puts it) the goodness of the world is almost infinite, far greater than what finite beings like us can assay.  Therefore, we may hope.  (3) As Martin puts it, we “incorporate” hope into our lives in many ways; hope is a “syndrome.” 
            As I wrote in March, it is possible that the 21st century will bring cultural devastation to many people, perhaps even to the world’s leading military power.  We fear climate change run amok, we fear ever-more-deadly terrorists, we fear major power confrontations, we fear super germs invented in labs, we fear descent into authoritarianism and the loss of liberty, and the list goes on.  Our liberal, scientific, technological culture could suffer disaster.  Critchley would say we should, with a clear-eyed gaze on all these possibilities, work realistically to minimize them. Martin would remind us that in regard to all these fears, good outcomes are both possible and very important; therefore we may hope against them.  Lear would say that we should continue to hope even if the worst happens. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Story and Meaning at 10,000

Ten Thousand Visits

     I began this blog in March 2012.  The automatic counter provided by the blogspot software tells me there have been 10012 visits to the site.  Number 10,000 was probably someone from Russia.  (The software also records country of origin.)  There's been a surge of visits from Russia in the last two weeks.
     Ten thousand visits in 52 months is not a lot.  Story and Meaning doesn't rack up readers like sport blogs or pet videos.  Nevertheless, I'm grateful to all of you for checking in.
     If you're curious--of the 10,000 visits, more than 7000 have been from the U.S.  Russia and the Ukraine have both had more than 700, with more than a thousand from other countries (dozens of them).
     I will continue to post new material, either philosophy essays or new fiction.  Responses via email or the comment button are always welcome.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Adrienne Martin and Hope

How Should We Hope? Advice #3

            Adrienne Martin’s 2014 book, How We Hope: A Moral Psychology, provides a third advice for hope, which may be paraphrased thus: License yourself to incorporate an important possible good into your life.  I’ll try to explain.
            First, Martin describes what she calls the “orthodox” definition of hope among modern philosophers.  On the orthodox view, hope consists in the combination of two things: desire for some outcome plus a probability judgment that the outcome is possible (neither certain nor impossible).  Second, Martin argues—persuasively, I think—that the orthodox doctrine of hope cannot be correct.
            She makes her case by appealing to examples of what is often called “hoping against hope”; that is, cases of hope where the desired outcome is very improbable.  Martin asks us to imagine Alan and Bess, two terminal cancer patients.  (Martin herself spent time volunteering on a cancer ward.)  The doctors offer Alan and Bess an experimental drug, telling them there is only a one in ten thousand chance the drug will cure them.  Both patients accept the drug.  Alan admits that a cure is possible, but that possibility plays no role in his daily life.  Alan hopes weakly.  (Perhaps he participates in the trial only to benefit science or future patients.)  In contrast, Bess allows herself to hope strongly.  She knows that probably the drug won’t help her, but the mere possibility that it will becomes a significant part of her life.  She thinks about her future and makes plans based on her hope.  She also makes “back-up plans” in case the drug doesn’t work; i.e. she writes a will and gives instructions for end-of-life treatment.  On the whole, though, her life is deeply affected by her hope.
            Now: given the orthodox definition of hope, how should we think about the difference between Alan and Bess?  On the orthodox view, hope just is desire + probability judgment.  So how can we understand Bess’s greater hope when compared to Alan?  Are we to assume that Bess has a stronger desire for life than Alan?  That hardly seems right.  Alternatively, should we say that Bess has somehow “cheated” by convincing herself that the experimental drug has a greater chance of success?  It is certainly possible that a person can let her desire for a certain outcome influence her judgment about the likelihood of that outcome, but does this happen in every case?  Martin points out that a person’s subjective confidence in a desired outcome can vary significantly even in the course of a few hours.  If the orthodox definition of hope were correct, that would mean a person’s hope for the desired outcome varies with his feelings about probability.
            Martin’s conclusion: the orthodox view of hope cannot satisfactorily account for cases of hoping against hope.  Something else is going on when we hope.  So she proposes an alternative analysis of hope, which she called the “incorporation” thesis.
            The incorporation view starts with desire, though Martin rightly points out that “desire” needs to be interpreted very broadly to account for hope.  Our attitude toward the thing we hope for is expressed in feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and actions.  Following Margaret Walker, Martin says hope is a “syndrome” rather than simply desire.
            More importantly, the incorporation thesis holds that in hope we make two judgments.  The first judgment is the probability judgment identified by the orthodox definition.  To hope for a thing, one must judge that it is possible, neither certain nor impossible.  The second judgment is a practical judgment by which one decides whether the desired outcome is important to one’s life.  The fact that a desired outcome is important to a person gives her reason to hope for that thing.
            On the incorporation thesis, we do not have to say that Alan desires life less than Bess, nor must we say that Bess is somehow deceiving herself about the drug’s chances of success.  Bess has made a correct probability judgment: there is a tiny chance that the drug will help her.  And she has made a permissible practical judgment: gaining help from the drug is a very important part of her conception of her life going forward.  On the basis of these two judgments, Martin says, a person may “license” herself to hope for an outcome.
            A “license” is not permission to ignore evidence.  Bess continues to believe, based on the best evidence she has (the doctors’ testimony) that the drug has a very small chance of curing her.  Therefore Bess makes back-up plans, in case the drug doesn’t work.  But she licenses herself to imagine a cure, to picture it, to feel encouraged, even to make plans for life after the cure.  In other words, she licenses herself to inhabit a syndrome of hope.  As a syndrome, hope affects her life in many different but overlapping ways: perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and actions.
            Martin points out that hope is often thought to have peculiarly sustaining qualities.  Hope supports us through hard times.  How is this to be explained, if hope = desire + probability judgment?  As we saw with Simon Critchley’s advice, on the orthodox view of hope, what we ought to do is temper our hopes to fit the evidence.  Don’t get your hopes up, because unreasonable hopes will get crushed.  On the orthodox view, hope’s power to sustain us in hard times may be real, but it is bought at too high a price, the price of unreasonable belief.
            I think Martin is clearly right, Critchley wrong.  (About hope.  I make no comment on Critchley’s political views.)  Bess need not deceive herself about the drug’s likely efficacy.  As she undergoes the drug regimen she may experience lots of hard times.  By licensing herself to hope, she may also experience the sustaining power of hope.
            (A side note: a medical researcher friend tells me there is empirical evidence that hopefulness in real world patients like Bess—who after all, is merely an illustration—actually increases the chances of cure.  I suspect he is right.  Hope may be demonstrably effective.  But this is a complicated matter, and Martin’s argument stands without it.)
            On the incorporation view, if some desired outcome is possible, and if I judge that it is important to my life, I may license myself to hope for it.  Hope is a syndrome: I imagine it, I think about it, I encourage myself with it, I perceive the world in the light of it, and I act in accord with it.