608 - Flight From Meaning 3 (Science, Chimpanzees and The Monongahela)

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#604#605#606#607 Episode #608 - Flight From Meaning 3
(Science, Chimpanzees and The Monongahela)

#609#610#611#612

John Taylor Gatto's beloved Monongahela River

Sat 16 June 2012  Charlie Chaplin, Steve Talbott (reading), Jane Goodall, John Taylor Gatto (reading)
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Download Hour1 Download Hour2 I start my third year this week with an unusually open ended love-it-or-hate-it next episode in the 'Flight From Meaning' series, centered on an essay by philosopher Steve Talbott on how biologists contrive to study life itself as if it were merely a lifeless mechanism. We also hear from Jane Goodall about chimpanzee society and read some of Underground History of American Education on John Taylor Gatto's boyhood.
We start the show with an uplifting speech by Charlie Chaplin from The Great Dictator. Next our main piece, an hour long reading of Steve Talbott's How Biologists Lost Sight of The Meaning of Life. This is a complex philosophical essay on the tendency of biologists to look at the world as if it were a mechanistic specimen in a lab, not as the ensouled place in which they live. Although his focus is academic biologists, there is a lesson for us all here, I think. To what extent do we merely follow the precepts of those around us, subscribing to a mechanistic, dispirited worldview? How much do we follow our heart, striving to find meaning in what we do and in the world around us?

After a quick introduction we switch from the Talbott reading for a 25 minute TED talk by Jane Goodall, an expert on chimpanzee society, in which she has lived for decades. She exemplifies the sympathetic approach to studying the animal world; she was subject to much criticism for using names rather than numbers for referring to the chimpanzees she was studying, since custom at the time dictated that use of numbers was more scientific, while names risked anthropomorphism. She credits the dog from her childhood in UK with teaching her the most important lessons about animals, and concludes by emphasizing the importance of personal choice and taking responsibility in preventing ecological disaster.

We then continue into our second hour with the reading How Biologists Lost Sight of The Meaning of Life. Talbott notes how that whilst submitting to a doctrine of academic rigor which 'de-means' their work, scientists nevertheless betray with their discourse and thinking -- as well as in their everyday lives -- that it is impossible to deny the importance of meaning. The fact that 'meaning' cannot be rigorously defined in no way invalidates it as a concept -- as he notes, a definition in itself signifies nothing unless we accept, a priori, the validity of meaning. Echoing the thoughts on Cartesian dualism we heard in episode 606, Talbott asks on what grounds does modern science attempt to deny the centrality of 'meaning' in the life which is all around us?

We conclude with a reading from chapter 10 of John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education. Gatto is describing his boyhood in Monongaheela, how as he grew up he was allowed to find his own meanings in the world around him. (Lyn Gerry skipped this chapter in 2008/9 when she read the book on air).
Thanks to TED for the Jane Goodall talk
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