Wednesday, February 22, 2017

HB 14

Retrospect and Prospect

            Can one write a philosophy book as a series of short essays?  Perhaps only in draft form; so far what I am calling the “Hope Book” seems choppy and disjointed.  I’ve adopted this mode of presentation as a way to squeeze writing into the school year.  I’m able to average about 1000 words a week.  The project certainly needs editing.  In anticipation of that task, here is a progress report, a look back and a look ahead.
            In chapter 1, I described the basic structure of hope: that it combines a desire for some good thing that is judged to be possible, neither certain nor impossible.  Chapter 2 listed four categories of hopes: immoral hopes (e.g. Don Juan’s hope to seduce his neighbor), innocent but unimportant hopes (e.g. that the Mariners win the pennant), morally praiseworthy hopes (e.g. Bernie’s hope to provide for his children after he dies), and the theological virtue of hope (which, for Aquinas, focuses on eternal friendship with God).  I mean that list to be suggestive, not definitive; there may be other important kinds of hope, and particular examples may lie in the imprecise boundaries between the four kinds.  In chapter 3, I introduced C.R. Snyder’s hope theory, which defines hope as entirely cognitive and claims significant therapeutic success.  Chapter 4 presented Adrienne Martin’s “syndrome” account of hope, which makes hope something more complicated than Snyder’s formula: pathways + motivation = hope.  Chapter 5 recounted an argument by Simon Critchley against hope—that is, an argument that many of our hopes are irrational and unwise.  In particular, Critchley complains about hope’s bad influence on public policy.  If the subject is “audacious hope,” Critchley sides with Nietzsche, not Obama.  In chapter 6, I turned to Adrienne Martin’s “incorporation thesis” to defend the rationality of hope against the philosophers’ typical modern criticism of hope, which Critchley illustrates.  Martin argues that there are two judgments in hope: a probability judgment that some outcome is possible and a practical judgment that the desired end is important enough to “license” oneself to hope for it.  Martin concludes that hope for very unlikely things can still be rational.
            Chapter 8 introduced Michael Bishop’s theory of positive causal networks, which he intends as a paradigm theory of positive psychology.  PCNs are “homeostatic property clusters,” says Bishop, and they are a real feature of the world.  In chapter 9, I dealt with a side issue.  Bishop’s theory will be controversial among moral philosophers, because he explicitly argues that wicked people can have happy lives, that human flourishing and moral goodness do not implicate each other.  Whether or not Bishop adequately defends his thesis on that point, in chapter 10 I argued that Bishop’s PCN theory gives helpful insight into hope.  Bishop’s book rather cavalierly treats hope as merely hopeful feelings, but his theory actually fits Martin’s syndrome account of hope very well.  Hope is complicated; it includes perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions—and more perhaps.  The various parts of hope reinforce each other just as Bishop’s PCN theory says the parts of a causal network reinforce each other.
            Having noticed the likeness between PCN theory and the syndrome account of hope, in chapter 11 I moved to the question of how we can develop hope.  We can learn to perceive the world in accord with knowledge, as when we train ourselves to see the world turning beneath a stationary sun.  So we can, I suggested, train ourselves to perceive the world in a hopeful way.  (Thick masonry prison walls become not just a barrier but also an escape route.)  Chapter 12 pressed the point a bit further.  We can attend to the world with hope, as the wounded hiker listens for any sound of a passing vehicle.  Chapter 13 returned to Snyder’s hope theory.  While the hope theory definition of hope is too simplistic, it does point to ways we can grow in hope: by thinking of pathways around barriers and by recognizing in ourselves motivation to use those pathways.
            I want to discuss at least as many aspects of hope in the succeeding chapters, but of course, since I haven’t written them yet, their contents are not yet determined.  In a preliminary way, here are upcoming topics:
            *Should a person prioritize his hopes?  Soren Kierkegaard wrote about hope as a “task.”  He thought a life could be concentrated into a central hope.  He suggested examples from literature and imagination of a life’s central hope.  But as a Christian, he also criticized many possible central hopes.  Our “task” of hope, he wrote, is to build a life around the right central hope.
            *Kierkegaard wrote as a Christian.  Does his notion of the task of hope square with biblical teaching about hope?  Is there a doctrine of Christian hope in the New Testament?  N.T. Wright, a bishop in the Church of England and a well-known Bible scholar, says there is.  He also complains that many contemporary Christians seem ignorant of the Bible’s teaching.  Many church people today, Wright says, have adopted notions of hope from popular culture rather than their own tradition.
            *Wright and Jurgen Moltmann try to describe an “ethics of hope.”  So far this book has focused on hope as a virtue in the lives of individuals.  Is it possible that hope could be an organizing principle in a social ethic?  What is the “ethics of hope”?
            *Is hope—as related to social questions—a purely Christian concern?  Jonathan Lear writes about “radical” hope, based not on Christian theology but on the observation that the goodness of the world is greater than our conceptual grasp of it.  Is Christian hope, based on a transcendent God, a version of “radical” hope?
            *It seems to me that Lear’s argument for a secularized radical hope ought to be paired (conceptually anyway) with “radical” fear.  I’m not enthusiastic about this idea, but it may need attention.
            *Thomas Aquinas identified two vices that contend against hope: despair and presumption.  Since I have written a few chapters about how to hope, perhaps I should have already included comments on these vices; how not to hope.  But the vices of hope impede our social hopes as much as the hopes of our individual lives, so reflections on despair and presumption will be appropriate at that time.
            I’m pretty sure that won’t be everything, but it is enough for now.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

HB 13

12. Pathways and Motivation

            C.R. Snyder’s “hope theory” says that hope consists in two beliefs: that the individual can think of pathways toward desired outcomes and that the individual is motivated to use those pathways.  According to the theory, hope is entirely cognitive.
Now I think Snyder’s theory is too simple.  The hope syndrome (or positive causal network) includes other elements, such as the way we perceive things and the way we direct our attention to certain features of the world.  Further, it seems obvious that some of our actions contribute to the syndrome/causal network of hope.  Every time Andy Dufresne dropped bits of masonry in the prison yard, he reinforced his hope of escape.
Nevertheless, if we are asking how to hope, Snyder’s theory directs us to parts of the hope syndrome that may be especially amenable to agential control—at least, in regard to some of the things we hope for.  That is, we can see that certain things are true simply by introspection; and when we recognize their truth, hope is strengthened.
Imagine Andre, who wants a new job.  He’s been doing the same thing for fifteen years, working in a factory, office, or store.  He feels trapped.  Andre needs the income, since he and his wife have two children, but without more education he can expect no advancement.  Andre’s disappointment with his job seems to color everything in his life.  He’s frustrated with his children.  He often snaps at his wife, and then feels guilty about it.  He drinks too many beers.  Andre sees commercials for clinical trials of a new depression medication on television; it occurs to him that he might be depressed, though he would never tell anyone.  Andre’s family and religious upbringing strongly discouraged admission of mental illness.
Andre wants a new job, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say he hopes for it.  Michael Bishop would describe his state not as a positive causal network but a negative causal network.  If things keep going this way, Andre may develop clinical depression.  Various negative aspects of his life reinforce other negative aspects of his life—the kids’ medical bills, marking time on the job, his wife’s lack of understanding, the sky-high cost of a college degree, his drinking, his anger at his wife, feeling sad and trapped, the job…
Suppose that somehow Andre learned precepts of C.R. Snyder’s hope theory/therapy.  Maybe someone on the pastoral staff of his church lent him an article describing hope theory and met with Andre to talk about it.  Andre says the article intrigues him, but he doesn’t see how hope theory could apply to him.  He’s stuck; there’s nothing he can do to change his situation.  The pastor points out that Andre did read the article, and he did come to meet with the pastor.  So there are some things that Andre can do.  Perhaps in thinking up pathways to goals (a better job, a college degree, a better relationship with his wife, etc.) Andre doesn’t need to imagine every step of the way.  Perhaps he can think of little steps that take him part way to the goal.  Encouraged by the pastor, Andre says he could ask whether his company would pay for college classes.  Many companies offer such support, says the pastor, and even if Andre’s company doesn’t pay for education, making the inquiry might impress Andre’s managers at the company.  There is nothing to keep Andre from asking—if he wants to.  Andre realizes that he does want to.  By introspection, he sees that he has a possible pathway toward his goal and he is motivated to use it.  Andre says he will go to the human resources office tomorrow.  The pastor promises to meet with Andre again next week, just to make sure he carries through.
Obviously, this is only one step.  Andre will need to invent further pathways and find the motivation to use them.  Hope theory holds that such little steps increase a person’s hope.  We can readily imagine how Andre may feel more hopeful.  C.R. Snyder’s research team claims that positive affect often accompanies increased hope.  That is: once clients have the right beliefs about pathways and motivation, positive feelings will follow.  In real life hope may increase more slowly than our imagined case, though Snyder’s research team says that even simple interventions may increase hope in measurable ways.
Hope theory does not promise easy solutions for all situations.  Therapists may sometimes help clients to redirect their desires.  Suppose Andre wanted not simply a better job, but to become president of the company, a multi-billion dollar corporation with branches in ten different countries.  Hollywood fantasies sometimes promote the myth that “anything is possible,” but Andre’s pastor friend—precisely because he is a friend—should encourage Andre to focus on genuinely possible goals.  On Adrienne Martin’s “incorporation thesis,” we may “license” ourselves to hope for unlikely things if they have sufficient practical import, but it is not rational to hope for impossible things.
A question arises: can we hope for things toward which one sees no pathway?  According to my personal journal, in the 1980s I hoped and prayed for peaceful change to come to the Soviet Union.  As a private citizen in the United States, there was no pathway I could pursue, other than prayer, to achieve peaceful change in Russia’s government.  I don’t know what Snyder’s colleagues would say about such a case.  Does prayer for a thing count as a pathway toward achieving that thing?  Is it rational to hope for such a thing?
Snyder’s theory focuses on ordinary mundane goals: better jobs, better relationships, success in projects, etc.  Examples like hoping for peaceful change in a one-party state raise a different set of questions about hope.  Beginning with my next chapter I will explore extreme hopes.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Last Walk 12

The Last Walk 12:

            The email said: “Thank you, Karen and Phil.”
            For a moment I was knocked off my pins.  The names, Karen and Phil, linked so simply, hit hard.  After 39 years, that link has been broken.
            The explanation is straightforward.  As department chair I had written an email to Karen Murphy, asking if she would consent to teach a couple courses for us next year.  Karen has served as instructor before, and she’s done good work.  If she was willing to teach, I wanted her.  I copied Paula Hampton on the email.  Paula is the department administrative assistant; she magically transforms the results of my phone calls and emails into neat spreadsheets.  Karen accepted my invitation to teach, so Paula happily filled in two more slots on the College of Christian Studies load sheet.  She replied to both of us: “Thank you, Karen and Phil.”
            The email surprise lasted only a second, until I saw that Paula meant Karen Murphy, not my Karen, the Karen.  For a second, though, the deep opened up.
            Some reminders shout their arrival in advance.  Karen’s birthday came in early February.  I imagined it would be a harder day than it turned out.  I was busy all day grading papers, exercising, shopping and attending basketball games; maybe that explains it.
            Other reminders are, well, surprises.  There’s an empty notebook on the end table by the couch where I watch TV.   How long has that been there?  I pick it up, and there is Karen’s handwriting.  It’s not just her words; her hand—the firm, clear strokes made by a woman who could have been an artist.  The deep opens again.
            She could have been an artist/composer, but for much of her life, she wasn’t.  She pursued psychology instead.  She worked hard to become a psychologist, and she made herself successful in her specialty, neuropsychological testing.  Looking back now, I think she would have pursued music, except for a disastrous first marriage.  Before we met, Karen endured three years of abuse, violence, and fear before she escaped her husband.  She went into psychology partly to seek healing of those wounds.  As the years went by and our marriage proved secure, she ventured ever more deeply into music performance and composition.
            Another surprise: only now, after she is gone, do I gain insight.
            I dread doing taxes this year.  For many years Karen and I did our taxes together.  We collected 1099s, W-2s, giving records, taxes paid, evidence of business expenses, and all the other details you need to fill in form 1040 and its schedules.  (Actually, Karen did most of the collecting, but I helped some.)  Then we would sit down together at my home computer and work TurboTax together.  (I’m not endorsing TurboTax.  It’s just the program we happened to us.  Using the same product repeatedly makes it easy to update records from one tax year to the next.)
            We had a system.  There’s something deeply irritating about doing taxes, at least for us.  If we tried to “plow through”—just keep at it ’til we’re done—we would exasperate ourselves.  Instead of plowing through, we took turns.  One would sit at the computer keyboard entering numbers, addresses, and justifications for claims; the partner would dig through the expandable file to collate receipts, reports, and other stuff.  We’d work on the tax program for an hour, then take a break; maybe come back to the job the next day. 
            But now my partner is gone.  I have to do it alone.  I’ll follow the old system of work-break-work-break.  I wonder what surprises there will be.  If tax season doesn’t bring them, something else will.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

HB 12

11.  Paying Attention

            We can learn to perceive the world in hopeful ways.  That is to say: we have some measure of agential control over our perceptions.  In this chapter, I want to think about a particular aspect of perception, which we can call paying attention.
            I borrow an illustration from Mark Bernier, author of The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard.  (The example comes from one of Mark’s conference papers, not his book.  I will have more to say about the “task” of hope in a later chapter.)  Mark inspired the example, but he is not responsible for the lessons I derive from it.
            Imagine a man hiking a logging road in the Maine woods.  Hunting season is over, and winter has set in.  He visits the woods late in the year precisely because almost no one else does.  A farmer in a pickup truck waved to him an hour ago, the only person he has seen since leaving his car a hundred yards from the end of the pavement.  He loves quiet and the beauty of the forest.  On an impulse he leaves the road, walking down a slope into the stillness of nature.  The snow isn’t deep, and his boots keep his feet dry and warm.  He wanders deep into the wilderness.  He sees the forest as a natural cathedral, full of majesty and mystery.
            Then he slips.  The snow isn’t deep, but it concealed a soft patch or a fallen branch.  He falls, rolls, and hears a terrifying snap.  The pain of a broken leg surges through him, followed by a wave of fear.  He cannot walk.  Now five inches of snow—before, merely an element of forest beauty—constitutes a deadly threat, because he must crawl back to the logging road.
            He had planned to walk out of the woods in daylight.  Now?  At best he might reach the road before dark.  Out of cell phone range, the hiker realizes his survival depends on two things: reaching the road and the arrival of a rare passerby.  He chose this day for his hike partly because few vehicles would use the road, yet now he yearns for the sound of an engine.  If one comes, the loudest sound he could make is a scream.  His fingers curl around a stone; rising on his knees he might be able to throw it to the road and get the attention of a driver.  As he crawls uphill toward the road, he listens intently for any indication of a vehicle.
            Reflect for a moment on the hiker’s attention.  The beauty and serenity of the forest no longer register in his mind.  The hoped for sound of an engine is all that matters.  No one would fault the hiker for this.  His survival depends on hearing a vehicle and successfully signaling its driver. 
Notice how the hiker’s situation fits Adrienne Martin’s incorporation thesis.  It is not impossible that a car or pickup could come, though it is very unlikely.  The hiker rightly judges that the arrival of a vehicle is possible and that it is of great practical importance.  Therefore he “licenses” himself to hope for one.
The hiker’s attention resembles, but is slightly different from Andy Dufresne perceiving Shawshank Prison’s walls as possible escape routes.  In hopeful perception, one construes something or sees something as having certain features.  In hopeful attention, one is not construing or interpreting sensory information; rather he readies himself to receive certain information.  Hopeful perception (Andy Dufresne) interprets what already is; hopeful attention (the hiker) looks for what may be.
The difference I am describing between perception and attention is so small we might ignore it.  But I think it makes a practical difference for hope.  Sometimes hope interprets certain features of the world, while at other times hope anticipates or waits for things.
Imagine a Somali refugee in a sprawling refugee camp in Kenya.  She lived here with her mother for four years, until her mother died.  That was ten years ago.  Her desire to return to Somalia evaporated long ago.  She wants to emigrate to the United States.  To that end, with the help of aid workers, she has made application and submitted to interviews.
The refugee hopes to emigrate.  The decision lies in other people’s hands, people whose lives she can hardly imagine—ambassadors, presidents, immigration officials, and so on.  These people’s judgments are to her as inscrutable as the pronouncements of pagan gods.  Often she gets discouraging news: the quota is full this month, or a new president has decided that refugees from her country should be excluded from the United States.  She may interpret or perceive bad news as temporary setbacks; she persists in hope.  Additionally, though, her hope consists in attentive waiting.  Her hope not only colors the way she interprets today’s news, it anticipates tomorrow’s news.  It looks toward something that is not yet.
We will return to the notion of attentive waiting as a component of hope in a later chapter.
For now, back to our hiker.  Consider another feature of the hiker’s attention.  Out of many things he might attend to, he selects only a few.  He is listening for the sound of a car or truck to the exclusion of almost everything else.  Other sounds of the forest (admittedly, there aren’t many) he ignores.  Selective attention is true of all of us all the time.  The world presents us with a kaleidoscope of possible perceptions, and we cannot attend to all of them.  It is no objection against hope to say that in hope a person attends to only some aspects of the world.  Perhaps a perfectly rational and timeless being (i.e. God) would focus equally on every aspect of the world.  But this is not something we should expect of finite dependent creatures such as ourselves.