McEwan’s Solar: A philosophical review

Ian McEwan’s most recent novel Solar (2010) picks up where his last novel Saturday (2005) left off. (His 2008 work, On Chesil Beach, is a novella. It is also one of his best.) In Saturday, McEwan poses the political question: Can an open society resist the threat posed by 21st C. terrorism? The question can be recast in the form of a dilemma. On the one hand, an open society, the novel implies, may be “too open” in that it allows for its own violent destruction at the hands of plotting terrorists. On the other hand, it may become too closed, thereby engaging in a self-protective act that is also self-defeating. Will terrorism win from the outside or from the inside, McEwan seems to be wondering. He hopes neither.

Solar represents McEwan’s attempt to think through that other civilization-ending enemy: ecological disaster. McEwan’s main premise is that lifestyle change is not sufficient; only a technological breakthrough will save civilization from final ruin. Here is where the protagonist Michael Beard, a Noble Prize-winning physicist, comes in. Beard seeks to develop new solar technology that will be cheaper than fossil fuels (the market incentive) as well as more effective than green alternatives (the “civilization-saving incentive”). In the end, he fails, and the failure is a tragedy.

I have subtitled this blog a “philosophical review,” and I mean to explore this sub-genre in the context of the metaphysical lessons about human nature. McEwan seems interested, first of all, in pointing out that a man of genius may not lead a flourishing life. Perhaps you didn’t need to read this blog or McEwan’s novel to figure this out. After all, it seems fairly obvious that geniuses have often lived messy private lives–ones strewn about with divorces, pettinesses, squabbling, pecuniary concerns, and a handful of vices. The German philosopher Leibniz was a polymath but also a nasty fellow. (For more on Leibniz’s fascinating life, read Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic or Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds–two page-turners.)

Still, McEwan’s novel contributes something; it makes more perspicuous the thought that being brilliant is not the same thing as being wise. It asks us to examine why most of us would, if given a choice, select genius over wisdom. (I would not.) In addition, it foregrounds the theme of integrity (integritas), the feeling of wholeness that comes from bringing the various parts of my life into harmony. Beard never achieves anything like integrity; his life is always coming apart at the seams.

Second of all, McEwan mounts the hobby horse of many 18th C. moral philosophers: to wit, the extent to which less-than-moral, immoral, or amoral behavior can nonetheless conduce to moral (or political) ends. Beard’s motivations are “mixed”: he seeks glory and fame, magnificent profits, and something vaguely approaching the public good. I don’t read Beard as being only a self-interested anti-hero but as being a conceptually muddled animal from the first. In his sketch of Beard the man and world-historical agent, McEwan seems to suggest that history is rarely made by men of virtue but by “banally evil” men and women of a middling sort. Welcome to our democratic age.

On integrity


Integrity (Latin: integritas) connotes a sense of wholeness, of all parts coming together beautifully and completely. And the lack of integrity? That is nothing but the feeling of coming undone, of being out-of-joint and self-divided.

In “Integrity and Wholeness,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 27.1 (2010), John Cottingham writes that someone who has a “certain psychological wholeness” has “an understanding of the significance of all her various goals and desires, and the true place of each in her overall life-plan — how they fit in with her sense of who she really is.” In the conclusion, he observes, “Integrity is perhaps the hardest virtue to achieve – striving to make sure that all parts of our outlook fit together, that there are no hidden projections or self-deceptions distorting our attitudes.”

Hypothesis: A workable philosophy of life (chapter 2 of my book manuscript) must contain two ingredients:

  1. Moral and intellectual maturity: Examining one’s life is like growing up.
  2. Integrity: Living well entails discovering how one’s basic desires and projects hang together. (Shall we call this a beautiful soul?)

Question: Grant that 1. and 2. are necessary conditions–are they sufficient?

Application: Philosophical counseling should focus its attention on 1. and 2.

Ataraxia, allostasis, or resilience?

Ian McEwan’s fiction circles around the question: After an event has transformed my being in the world, what do I do now? How do I reorient myself to the world, to this new world from which I am estranged? His novels are novels of “adjustment” or “collapse.”

Suppose we’re aware of the tragic nature of the world. Then we might ask before we arrive at McEwan’s transformative event: How shall we immunize ourselves against the effects of tragedy? What is the best strategy for doing so?

I want to consider three proposals. First, the Stoical solution. The Hellenistic philosophers were more or less agreed that the aim of the good life was ataraxia (which can be translated, roughly, as freedom from mental disturbance). The Stoics held that ataraxia could be achieved in a three-fold manner:

  1. Grant fatalism its due. We have no power over events (let’s forgo magical thinking). These come and go of their own accord. In addition, the course of the universe is governed by fate. We are thus led to amor fati: We must love that which comes to pass and wish for nothing else.
  2. Do not value external goods. Health, wealth, and reputation are not ultimately within our control. They are at best “preferred indifferents.”
  3. Follow our moral purpose. Within our control is our faculty of willing. Let’s value this and no other.

These three principles, taken together, make up a recipe for self-sufficiency. Followed scrupulously, they seek to immunize the sage from experiencing tragedy at the same time that they supply him with the most excellent fruit: peace of mind.

Call the Stoic solution a “front end solution,” a systematic way of approaching luck before it arises. Unlike Stoicism, resilience is a “back end” approach. We are concert pianists, and one day we discover that we can no longer read music. Or we are novelists, and we wake up one morning without the ability to read. Or we are engineers who have lost our sense of sight. (I’ve taken these examples from Oliver Sack’s book, The Mind’s Eye.) One who is resilient finds, somehow, that he is able to “bounce back.” He summons courage and fortitude, resourcefulness and prudence, cunning and cleverness. He takes an obstacle, recasts it as a problem, and works out a solution–or a set of solutions or a battery of provisional strategies. Rather than breaking, he bends lithely. Where does such strength-in-bending come from? We do not know.

Now allostasis. This combines the static quality of Stoicism (meditate beforehand in order to remain calm) with the variability that gives rise to resiliency. By definition, “allo-stasis” involves maintaining stability through change. I suppose one might imagine a string vibrating harmonically: air passes over the string at various rates, and the string “thrives” by adjusting subtly or dramatically to the changing conditions. It needs to be emphasized that the string would not be musical unless there were change, and the string is given the “opportunity” to be “more musical” as a result of the changing rates.

The Stoical sage is an inner citadel. The resilient individual is a bending reed. The allostatic contemplative is a vibrating string. Which is the best solution to the problem of suffering? And which will likely make us the happiest?

(But then what does it mean to ask about “the best” and “the happiest”? Do these questions make any sense?)

Clifford Saron on the positive effects associated with intensive meditative practice

Last night I attended a talk given by Clifford Saron, Ph.D., an Associate Research Scientist at UC-Davis’s Center for Mind and Brain. The title of the talk was “Training the mind: A longitudinal investigation of intensive meditation, attention, emotion, and physiology.” Saron and his team of researchers have been studying the effects of deep contemplative practice on well-being and compassion. Here is how Saron describes the project:

Together with three-dozen collaborating researchers and Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace, we are investigating how attentional, emotional and physiological processes are modified over the course of three months of intensive full-time training in meditative quiescence (Shamatha) and emotional balance (loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity), in a longitudinal randomized wait-list controlled study known as “The Shamatha Project.”

The early results from Clifford’s longitudinal study sound encouraging. Intensive meditative practice seems to have a positive impact on the practitioner’s overall well-being and on the level of compassion the practitioner shows toward others.
I noted a few limitations to the study, however. One was that practitioners were spending time at retreats, meditating for 8-10 hours a day. They also continued deep meditation afterward. Whence the question: how much daily meditation is necessary for the rest of us in order to achieve reasonable results? Another was the “ethical upshot”: feeling more at peace with myself and feeling more for the suffering of others may or may not lead to better conduct. (It’s a Humean rather than a Kantian approach to ethics.) Even if I feel, say, loving kindness for another, does my feeling for her fundamentally reorient me to the world, making me more likely to undertake action to alleviate her suffering (and the suffering of those like her)? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. These limitations aside, I was encouraged to see the rapprochement of science and meditative practice. We need much more of this.

Can I be happy as the world burns?

I’m not sure what the question means.

If it means, “Can I be happy even as the planet ceases to be a domicile for homo sapiens,” then the answer is clearly no. It is difficult to fathom what conception of happiness would allow for the extinction of life–my life included. (That is, provided that we limit ourselves to speaking about “earthly happiness.” A millenarian might celebrate the event; she might feel the joy of the coming rapture.)

If the question means, “Can I be happy while others suffer,” then the answer is perhaps. The 20th C. German philosopher Theodor Adorno insisted that there is no right living in the wrong world. I still agree with him: a good and flourishing life will require establishing the right economic, social, and political conditions, all of which go toward making living well possible. But then my question may not be the same as Adorno’s.

Suppose I identify happiness with peace of mind. Then, is it possible or good for me to seek to achieve mental tranquility despite the fact that political injustices rage and natural disasters upend? I think so. I would argue (and this is where I currently stand; in the past I would not have seen it this way) that we need to distinguish between the first-personal and third-personal standpoints. When I adopt a third-personal standpoint that is oriented toward justice, I am a “we,” a cosmopolitan. From this standpoint, the suffering of others, unnamed and anonymous or named and well-known, ought to matter to me. I may feel ineffectual (“What can I possibly do in the face of this disaster?”) or I may feel called to act (“I shall board a plane instantly for Haiti.”), but in either case I feel the demand to end useless suffering. And rightly so.

However, from a first-personal standpoint, I may feel generally happy that I am not anxious about the future, that I do not regret my past, that I love my family and friends, and so on. In my daily affairs, I may feel equipose, inner and outer balance, harmony with my immediate environment. And what’s wrong with that?

“Yes, but” I hear you saying. “Yes, but aren’t you having your cake and eating it too? And aren’t you turning away from suffering as you enjoy the privilege of being elsewhere and living comfortably?”

But, pray, how should I be? Why would feeling out-of-joint all the time be a good thing? In such a state, would I be more likely to act on behalf of others or less likely because I’m always preoccupied with the buzzing and whirring in my brain? If my personal life is in shambles, then how can I even begin to ascend to a higher, third-personal standpoint? And why should I feel “survivor’s guilt” each and every moment of my life? Frankly, this kind of survivor’s guilt reeks of holier-than-thou.

Or are you implying that I am self-deluded? Maybe my first-personal enjoyments will completely crowd out third-personal claims to suffering. But that’s not self-delusion; it’s an improper “distribution” of first-personal and third-personal standpoints. I don’t see why that has to be the case.

Here is what I am claiming. First, that we are making a “category mistake” when we confuse the question of inner harmony with that of global justice. (Please don’t pull some kind of postmodern deconstructionist rabbit out of your graduate school hat. The distinction is apt.) And, second, that we need to cultivate our faculty of judgment so that we learn how to determine when we should adopt the first-personal and when we should rise to the third-personal. With respect to the second claim, there may be a range of reasonable and acceptable ways of living in the world.