Living under a boundless sky

I was rooting around today in an old zip drive and found an initial attempt at what I presented several years ago upon being promoted to professor. I ended up delivering something weirder (see here), but I was happy to come across these thoughts, and the fresh recollection of Zane Pautz. So, for what it’s worth ….

Living Under the Boundless Sky (written in Fall 2009)

When he kindly invited me to present this inaugural lecture, the Provost asked me to describe the path which led me to become an academic scholar, and to illustrate and explain the core of my academic interests. So let’s start in the beginning and see where it leads us. How did I ever come to be a professor of philosophy?

The question makes me think immediately of Zane Pautz. Dr. Pautz was a philosophy professor at Milton College in Wisconsin, a small and charming college which lasted from 1844 to 1982. One day Dr. Pautz was invited to visit my high school Humanities class and present a lecture on Philosophy. It must have been 1982, the very year that Milton College finally closed its doors. At the time I did not know that there were still any living philosophers; I thought they had went out with Zeus and togas. But I still remember that Pautz lectured about the five main areas of philosophy, according to Aristotle — Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, and Aesthetics — and I was decidedly hooked. At every question he asked, I jumped, thinking “Yes! I’ve always wondered that!” I decided, either then or shortly thereafter, to study philosophy.

I learned a dozen years later, after getting my Ph. D. , that I had a further historical connection to Zane Pautz. Two of my uncles were his good friends back in the late 1940s. My uncles were attending seminary to become ministers, and they would get together with Pautz regularly to smoke their pipes and solve world problems. They called themselves “The Bohemian Club.” He would teach them about music (for his Ph. D, I gather, was in music, with a dissertation entitled: “An Historical and Analytical Study of Mysticism in Music,” from the University of Wisconsin), and they all would talk about theology (Pautz himself was ordained in 1947). I am not sure how he came to be a philosophy professor at Milton College. I imagine that he was just able and available, and that was probably good enough in those days.

Last September, when I was thinking about all this, I started wondering what had become of Zane Pautz, and so I began hunting around on the internet. I found some memories of him posted on the Milton College alumni webpage, about how he had once been knocked over by someone’s Irish Setter, and how he was able to lecture nonstop for three hours, to the very minute. I also found out he was still alive, at 86 years old. And I found his address. And his phone number. So I called him. His wife answered and said, “Sure, he’s right here,” and only then did I realize that I really didn’t know why I was calling him. I stumbled through some sort of clumsy explanation, and he recalled my uncles readily and remembered visiting my high school class. And then — just like that — we began talking about philosophy; and wisdom; and the great question of why there is something rather than nothing; and whether it is even conceivable that existence is the result of blind chance. We talked about the three concepts of love among the ancient Greeks, and how the word “philosophy” is based on the one expressing the love of friendship, and so philosophy means befriending wisdom; and we talked about the great theologian Paul Tillich and his assertion that God is not a being among beings but the very ground of Being itself; and we discussed the significance of the fact that we as human beings are even able to raise profound questions. I asked him if he believed humans are capable of wisdom, and he thought that the very fact that we can raise questions about it means that we have at least some degree of it. Wisdom, he felt, was more about the ability to ask the right questions, than about the ability to gather up answers. I had no trouble imagining that Dr. Pautz could lecture for three hours to the very minute, and — what is more — that he would keep his mind trawling in deep waters the whole time.

I also found that Dr. Pautz had not lost his power to inspire and motivate. He was very eager to talk philosophy, and plunge immediately in a heartfelt way into the deepest of all questions, and he was polite but relatively disinterested in the totally circumstantial details that had connected my life to his. His mind was on the eternal, and not on the contingent; on the boundless sky rather than on the shifting winds. Here, I thought, is a true philosopher. He is in love with wisdom, and gives only what he must to anything else.

I have been lucky to meet many great teachers, but on the whole my training as an academic has always been in some tension with what Zane Pautz has meant to me. The tension arises from two strong forces. First, there is the inescapable pull toward academic specialization. We all know the basic recipe for standing out as a student, getting one’s dissertation approved, getting published, gaining a reputation, and getting tenured: carve out a niche for yourself and publish the living daylights out of it. For me, this led to being one of a handful of go-to guys in the world for expertise in the arcane metaphysics of the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza. (I say that not with pride, by the way, but with a bit of embarrassment.) It’s hard to see what other recipe could work. Who dares to expect graduate students, or junior professors, to master the wide literature of an entire field, especially one that has been building steadily (and lately, exponentially) for over 2000 years? You would be in your mid-fifties, at least, before you dared to say anything (which, by the way, is just what Plato recommended). So what happens is that professional academics turn away from the big, deep questions Pautz is so consumed by, and they focus by necessity on ones that are easier to answer, or at least easier to publish on. That sort of thing can easily get to be a habit, even after you are tenured and promoted to full professor. And so … here we are.

The second force is just as strong, but a bit more amorphous. We live in a time that has a very large appetite for questions and tasks that can be tied to concrete and practical results. We would prefer not just to have poets, musicians, and big theory thinkers, but poets whose poems help draw autistic children out into a social world, and musicians whose songs lower our blood pressure, and big theory thinkers whose ideas help us organize telecommunication networks. I don’t have anything against these benefits, of course, but I can’t help but feel something is lost when practical application becomes the only determinant of whether we believe an activity is worthwhile. Maybe there are some intellectual pursuits that are valuable even if they don’t lower our blood pressure or help our telephones to work.

I have a big theory to explain why we ended up so consumed by practical results. My theory is that, a couple of centuries ago, in the time of Hegel, it was roughly possible for a single individual to master just about all of systematic knowledge — science, history, theology, law, you name it. Hegel’s great plan for his own encyclopedia was really just his own mind’s blueprint of how the entirety of human knowledge fit into his own skull. But two centuries of a continuous explosion of knowledge have pretty much blown that plan to bits, and we are in a strange land where human knowledge is much too big and scattered to fit into any human head. Even a sketchy blueprint is beyond us. So, like tourists in an overwhelmingly complex city, we impose an order upon knowledge in accordance with our practical needs, and we ignore most of the histories and aspirations of the parapets and citadels. We end up gauging the importance of a feature by how it affects our foraging, and our travel plans. And we end up seeing only as much of the city as our needs require.

But there is more to a city than that, by which I mean that there are things we value apart from any practical or professional concerns. Take wonder, for instance. The ancients used to say that philosophy, or befriending wisdom, is born of wonder. Plato, in the Theatetus, tells us that Thaumas, or Wonder, is the father of Iris, who is the rainbow, and who is also the messenger of the gods. So, in other words, Wonder gives birth to that which spans the space between earth and the heavens. Wonder turns our attention from the earth on which we stand toward that which we will never reach, that which defies any attempt to seize and measure. I think it was what Zane Pautz and Paul Tillich were getting at when they identified God not just as a being among beings, but as the very Being of beings — that which renders us all something, rather than nothing. And that is an occasion for genuine wonder.

I do not want to make this “wonder” business sound especially mystical or religious. Wonder — that is, genuine, deep, philosophical wonder — enters into every life, sometimes when we are alone, and sometimes when we are lucky enough to have someone like Zane Pautz to redirect our attention to questions we had never thought to ask. It is as ordinary as our being together here and now. Indeed, let us try to wonder for a moment. Why, really, is there something rather than nothing? It will not do to try to answer by bringing in the laws of physics, or the will of God, since we can go on to ask why there should be those laws, or that god, instead of some other possible arrangement, or no arrangement whatsoever. There are all sorts of other possible arrangements, for all we know, and yet we ended up with this particular one. So why are things this way, the way of our world, rather than some other way? Could it all possibly be blind chance? Or must there be some deep cause or reason why there should be something rather than nothing? But what could such a reason possibly look like? What possible reason could put an end to our wonder?

Set aside for now the problem of how we might actually secure an answer to such a huge question, and just consider what our own answers might say about us. Are you willing to believe that existence itself is something for which — ultimately — there is no explanation? Are you willing to think that? Or do you, in your bones, feel that there must be some sort of explanation, whether scientific or religious? Ultimately, at the bottom of it all, do you feel there must be an answer? Or might there be no explanation — which is how we feel when a terrible misfortune strikes a family, and the survivors go on to ask “Why? Why? Why?” without ever finding anything that really explains the tragedy to them? What do your feelings about this question say about you, and your own attitude toward human reality?

In any case, the fact that we are here, now, instead of there being nothing at all, certainly makes everything much more convenient! At the same time, it is a very deep mystery, very close at hand, and it should fill us with wonder. And that wonder is very important and very human. Some (like Heidegger) might say that you haven’t really thought until you’ve spent some time wrestling with that question. But I can’t see any practical value attached to it, or any way to set objective criteria to measure our success against it. I’m just glad to have had teachers who have led me into it.

I have been thinking about this lately, and trying to figure out how to connect that sense of wonder with what I do as a professor. This has led me to some reading about teaching and effective strategies in the classroom. After all, I’ve been teaching for twenty years, and so it’s about time to learn how to do it. There is a lot of research on the topic, but I guess very little of it is actually being used in university classrooms. The researchers are agreed: the single worst way of teaching is to stand in front of a group of motionless people and jabber away at them. (And yet here we are.) “A mind must work to grow,” said the legendary Harvard president Charles Eliot, and it’s always better to challenge students with new problems or ask them to apply concepts they have learned in new situations than to just describe the underlying ideas. Yet studies show that something like 80% of classroom activity is lecturing. Derek Bok, in his recent book Our Underachieving Colleges, challenges college faculty to take the rigorous, demanding attitude that they adopt when judging the research of their peers and use it also when they evaluate their own teaching. It is a fitting challenge. With some courage and effort we can outfox our inclinations toward self-deception and find ways to honestly measure the effects we are having on our students.

This I believe. And yet … there remains the wonder I was talking about, whose value cannot be so easily measured. Sometimes our attention has to be not on the earth, nor on the skills and facts and even values we need to live on it, but to the space of philosophical wonder, to the boundless sky. That is perhaps not something done effectively through methods that are useful for teaching other things, such as group work or service learning or undergraduate research or whatever. It is done, more often than not, under the guidance of a teacher who knows what to ask and where to fish, and how to impart to other minds the feeling that their lives are floating upon deep and deeper mysteries. I have found no ready recipe for bringing about that feeling of “the deep” in a classroom. Often the feeling seems to take us all, professor included, by surprise. I think that is because wonder cannot be planned for, and cannot be artificially constructed; it arises naturally in the presence of what is truly deep. That’s why, to get it, you need to be with someone who has wisdom as Pautz understands it: the ability to raise the right questions. And if that’s so, there is no recipe for bringing it about in the classroom, other than this: Be Wise.

All of what I have said so far, believe it or not, has been about the path that led me to be what I am today, just as it has also been about the core of my academic interests, as well as where I am going from here on out. In my career, I have thought and written a lot about relatively minor or even trivial issues in the history of philosophy, but here and there I have been able to find, as it were, some good fishing spots. I know I have found them when I feel that wonder myself, when I am teaching or when I am writing. I am tempted to say, with St. Paul, that when I was a child, I thought and reasoned like a child; but when I grew up, I put away childish things. But, ironically, what I am trying to put away now are many of the things adults are supposed to be concerned with, and my mind turns instead toward a kind of childish wonder: a wonder that stays put, that does not reach out for easy answers, but abides. I can easily imagine someone asking, “Where’s the value in that? Why should tax dollars go to support some starry-eyed fool who goes around trying to spread his own disorientation?” I am not sure how to answer that question. All I can do is gesture toward the sky, or to the depths below, and hope that the questioner also feels the wonder, and feels enlivened by it. That’s what Zane Pautz did for me, and that’s the very best I can hope to pass along to others.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, This & that in the life of CH. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Living under a boundless sky

  1. Mike says:

    I’ve been thinking on and off about the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” before falling asleep for the past few months. Not much has come from thinking about it. I’m considering actually reading a phil book on it, I heard there’s a recent good one about the question but you know, that’s cheating.

    Anyway, all I really have gotten to is that in some ways I do think the question is confused but even there I don’t think I really escape it by examining it. So then I started thinking about why I find the question so fascinating and I think it’s because I ask “why” and then look for intent. I mean I don’t feel like when I ask it i’m looking for a causal story. And that’s about it, I don’t think I can get to a place from which to see an explanation and I can’t think of a satisfying one and answers seem to beg the same question again in alternate form.

    The biggest way I think it’s confused is that, you know, we don’t experience ‘nothing’ so it seems like a false comparison. Or if you rephrase it to ‘why does the universe exist at all’ or whatever then well, maybe if we could see some non-existing universes then we could compare and understand the difference.

    But like I said, I take the “intent” turn when I think of it more and I guess the best answer I come up with is derived from a dream I had some time ago. In the dream I’m talking with God and we’re present in space together observing the universe more clearly than the clearest starry night you’ve ever seen and we’re conversing (non-audibly, why would that be necessary?) with each other. He knows I have these questions and want to know the secrets of the universe. But what he tells me is this — the universe is essentially information and if I knew the answer the universe would implode upon itself. So this particular not-knowing is a necessary condition. If I’d persist he’d communicate something like, “there’s no cause for concern” and then he passed along some sort of infinite peace.

    I assume the God I ran into in my dream was the God of the Skeptics because who else returns unending inquiry with peace?

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  2. Huenemann says:

    Here’s a reply from my newfound idealism, though it’s not nearly as eloquent as your dream. I think you are right that the “why” question is not looking for a causal story. I think it is looking for an explanation, which is not necessarily causal. The question is a search for a broader context in which it would make sense why there should be something rather than nothing. The answer to “Why is the universe exactly the way it is rather than any other possible way?” is, I think, “Every way a universe could be is the way some universe is” – i.e., the multiverse. But the answer to “Why is there anything at all?” – “Why is there the multiverse?” – is “Please don’t do that. The domain of the multiverse is the domain of all possible explanations. It is the entire region of all becauses. So asking why it should be is like asking why there should be any becauses – no answer can be given, because you are questioning becausedness itself.”

    Like I said, your dream is more eloquent.

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  3. Thank you for your eloquent remembrance of Dr. Pautz. Actually, he had 3 PhDs. In addition to philosophy he added religion and music. He was a wonderful man and an inspiring teacher. Now that you mention it, it was he that introduced me to the question of, “Why is there something instead of nothing” when I was a 19 year old punk in 1967. He was patient with me, not having fully grasped that I knew everything, and was at Milton College only to maintain my student deferment. But somehow he touched a chord deep within my being that has endured to this day. Although later taking a detour into full atheism, that short-lived excursion into “intellectual realism” came to a screeching halt with marriage and the birth of our first child. Transformative, you might say. Then there was the guy on the Cactus Pryor show, Sam Reed, who was offering a free overview of the Bible in both Old and New Testament survey classes. He was a minister in the non-denominational Christian church as well as a student of Hebrew and Greek, later to earn his PhD in the former. Sounded interesting. Attended. Very worthwhile. Visited church. Believed! Baptized. Now a student of the Scripture, some 40 years later. It is in the Scripture that I find the sense of wonder to which you so profoundly refer. “For the Word of God is active and alive, sharper than a two-edged sword…” A follower of Jesus, I spend most of my time in the Old Testament prophets and Psalms with a sense of wonder, looking for Him and also trying to grasp in the Psalms why David was considered a man after God’s own heart. Ravi Zacharias also speaks insightfully about the sense of wonder that is so integral to meaningful life and effective communication. I can tell from your excellent writing that you are a marvelous teacher, one who carries the legacy of Dr. Pautz and all he stood for, to future generations.

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