Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality
Mark Rowlands (Author) $25.95 November 2013
Like Mark Rowlands, I am a runner, a known associate of canines, and a philosopher in Florida. This probably makes me either well qualified as a reviewer or hopelessly biased.
While the book centers on the intrinsic value of running, it also addresses the broader topics of moral value and the meaning of life. While Rowlands references current theories of evolutionary biology, he is engaging in philosophy of the oldest school—the profound and difficult struggle to grasp the Good.
Decisively avoiding the punishing style that often infects contemporary philosophy, Rowlands’ well-crafted tale invites the reader into his thoughts and reflections. While Rowlands runs with canines rather than his fellow “big arsed apes” his writing has the pleasant feel of the well-told running story. While the tale covers a span of decades, it is nicely tied together by his account of his first marathon.
Since the book is about running and philosophy, there is the question of whether or not the book is too philosophical for runners and too “runsophical” for philosophers. Fortunately, Rowlands clearly presents the philosophical aspects of the work in a way that steers nicely between the rocks of being too technical for non-philosophers and being too simplistic for philosophers. As such, non-philosophers and philosophers should find the philosophical aspects both comprehensible and interesting.
In regards to the running part, Rowlands takes a similar approach: those who know little of running are provided with the needed context while Rowlands’s skill ensures that he still captures the attention of veteran runners. This approach ensures that those poor souls who are unfamiliar with both running and philosophy will still find the book approachable and comprehensible.
While the narrative centers on running, the book is a run across the fields of value and the hills of meaning. In addition to these broad themes, Rowlands presents what seems to be the inevitable non-American’s critique of American values. However, Rowlands’s critique of American values (especially our specific brand of instrumentalism) is a friend’s critique: someone who really likes us, but is worried about some of our values and choices. Lest anyone think that Rowlands is solely critiquing America, his general concern is with the contemporary view of value as being purely instrumental. Against this view he endeavors to argue for intrinsic value. Not surprisingly, he claims that running has intrinsic value in addition to its obvious instrumental value. While this claim generally seems self-evident to runners, in the context of philosophy it must be proven and Rowlands sets out to do just that.
Interestingly, he begins with a little known paper by Moritz Schlick in which he contends that play has intrinsic value. He then moves to Bernard Suits’s account of what it is to be game and notes that running is a form of play; that is, it involves picking an inefficient means of achieving a goal for the sake of engaging in the activity. Running is not a efficient way of getting around in an age of cars, but runners often run for the sake of running-thus running can be a game.
As Rowlands tells the reader, his approach is not strictly linear and he takes interesting, but relevant, side trips into such matters as the nature of the self and of love. These side trips are rather like going off the main trail in a run—but, of course, one is really still on the run.
Near the end of this run, Rowlands goes back to the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. He notes that the gods, such as Zeus, showed us that play is an essential part of what is best. The philosophers showed us that the most important thing is to love the good. The athletes taught us that running is play and therefore has intrinsic value.
He ends his run with a discussion of joy, which is the recognition of things with intrinsic value. As he says, dogs and children understand joy but when we become adults we lose our understanding—but this need not be a permanent loss.
While Rowlands’s case is well reasoned, he does face the serious challenge of establishing intrinsic value within the context of what I call the MEM (mechanistic, evolutionary, and materialist) world. Many ancient (and later) philosophers unashamedly helped themselves to teleological and metaphysical foundations for the Good. While this generated problems, this approach could seemingly ground intrinsic value. While I agree with Rowlands’s conclusion, I am in less agreement with his attempt to establish intrinsic value in his chosen world view. But, it is a good run and I respect that.
Like a long run, Rowlands’ book covers a great deal of ground. Also like a long run, it is well worth finishing. Plus there are dogs (the most philosophical of animals).
When I return to visit my home town in Maine, I run my favorite route. This year was no exception and the early morning found me running through the forests and fields of the University of Maine. Emerging from a section of the cool and shaded pine forest, I spotted a large buck standing, with a clear sense of the aesthetic, in an open area. He saw me almost immediately and our eyes met across the distance.
The deer and I are both the product of untold generations of natural selection (or, perhaps, the result of design) and we are both well equipped to do what it is that we do. Or, in more teleological terms, we possess attributes that enable us to fulfill our functions with a degree of excellence.
Both the deer and I are equipped with a decent array of senses, although the deer has something of an edge here. We are, interestingly enough, both well optimized for running. However, we are somewhat different sorts of runners. The deer is much faster than I, but I have an advantage in endurance. While I am not a tireless runner, I can (and have) run for hours. The deer can outrun me, but I can outlast the deer. So, a contest between us could come down to his speed against my endurance. I also have a special advantage—my species excels at handling heat. On this warm day, this gives me an edge over the deer.
While the deer is equipped with hooves and horns for offense, I would seem to be poorly equipped. As a human, I lack a proper set of killing teeth and my nails are stubs—shameful nubs when compared to the magnificent claws of a proper mammalian predator like a lion or beer.
However, I have hands and a pretty good brain. As such, I can make and use weapons. For example, the tree limbs I ran past could be easily converted into a club. I also have the ability to throw quite well, thanks to my eyes and arms—unlike any other animal I can hurl an object with force and accuracy over a fairly long distance. Even without weapons, my training allows me to use my hands, feet and grip lethally. In this regard, I am more than a match for the deer in unarmed combat. However, the deer is not helpless. Far from it—nature has blessed him with the tools he needs to survive against hunters like me and my four-legged brethren.
As I look at the deer, the remembered flavor of venison fills my mouth. Venison is my second favorite meat. My favorite is veal, which I gave up almost thirty years ago thanks to Singer’s book Animal Liberation. I also feel the runner’s desire to see if I can outrun someone else. I also have the mental traits that make me a suitable hunter: the aggression, courage and toughness needed to engage another living creature and inflict (and sustain) the damage needed to secure a meal. The deer also has his traits: caution, cunning and courage—I know that while he would endeavor to run, he would also fight for his survival.
The deer shifts slightly and seems to gaze more intently at me—as if he somehow knows that I am hearing the ancient call of the hunter. I can certainly feel the desire to pursue the deer, to face the challenge of the chase. I can see that the deer is getting ready to run. As I have been shaped by my hunter ancestors, he has been shaped by his ancestors—the hunted. We are, as I have said, both very good at what it is we do. We are, after all, what we are.
While I am well equipped for the hunt, I am also endowed with something else—the ability to engage in moral reasoning. While I am hungry (I am seven miles into a 14 mile run), I know that I have breakfast waiting for me. I have no need to kill the deer for food. I will not waste a life simply to gain a trophy, so I would certainly not rob the deer of his life merely in order to rob him of his antlers. While I would love to chase him for sport, I am sure he would not enjoy the game—he would not know it was a game and it would terrify him and waste his energy. As Kant said, cruelty for the sake of mere sport is not something that I, as a rational being, should be involved with. I will not play a game unless everyone involved knows it is just a game. At least, when I am at my moral best, that is what I will do—I do admit to the desire to yield to the call of the chase.
I turn away from the deer, running through the tall grass. The deer turns away as well, heading back into the woods. It is a beautiful day and we both have many miles to run.
The arrive of a new year typically causes me to think about past years-this usually involves remembering how good I used to be. Since some might suspect that the older I get, the better I used to be, I thought I’d post my best running times. Or at least the best times that I actually have supporting documentation for-I did not actually start recording my runs until the fall of 1987 and the tracking of Maine races back in the 1980s was limited, at best. There are probably some dusty records back at Marietta College as well-I should probably look for those one of these days.
As might be imagined, my current times are somewhat slower than these. But time can be cruel.
WTP will note that I have used an old newspaper clipping rather than a shirtless image of myself. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to post somewhat fewer such photos than in 2012. It will be tough, but Dr. Phil is coaching me and Sixpack Chopra (Deepak Chopra’s cooler and less annoying younger brother) is also on board as my spiritual guide.
|10K||33:45||Peter Ott’s 10K|
|13.1 (Half Marathon)||1:24||1/17/1999|
How many pictures of a shirtless Mike does the internet actually need?
This question has a clear normative aspect in that it addresses the matter of what the internet needs. This could be taken as a moral question or, more plausibly, an aesthetic question. Taken as an aesthetic question it raises the issue of the aesthetic needs of the internet.
Fortunately, this is one philosophical question that admits of a definitive answer. This answer is, of course, “all of them.”
This answer can be based on numerous theories, since all plausible theories will yield the same answer. For example, the shirtless imperative states that “act in a way such that if a picture of Mike shows him shirtless, then it is posted on the internet.” As another example, the shirtutilitarian theory states ”actions are good as they tend to promote the posting of pictures of a shirtless Mike; wrong as they tend to retard the posting of pictures of a shirtless Mike.” Even the shirtless command theory makes the matter clear: “thou shalt post shirtless pictures of Mike on the internet.”
The Noble Philosophy Prize for this year will be going to WTP for his work on this matter.
As a runner, martial artist and philosopher I have considerable interest in the matter of the will. As might be imagined, my view of the will is shaped mostly by my training and competitions. Naturally enough, I see the will from my own perspective and in my own mind. As such, much as Hume noted in his discussion of personal identity, I am obligated to note that other people might find that their experiences vary considerably. That is, other people might see their will as very different or they might even not believe that they have a will at all.
As a gamer, I also have the odd habit of modeling reality in terms of game rules and statistics—I am approaching the will in the same manner. This is, of course, similar to modeling reality in other ways, such as using mathematical models.
In my experience, my will functions as a mental resource that allows me to remain in control of my actions. To be a bit more specific, the use of the will allows me to prevent other factors from forcing me to act or not act in certain ways. In game terms, I see the will as being like “hit points” that get used up in the battle against these other factors. As with hit points, running out of “will points” results in defeat. Since this is rather abstract, I will illustrate this with two examples.
This morning (as I write this) I did my usual Tuesday work out: two hours of martial arts followed by about two hours of running. Part of my running workout was doing hill repeats in the park—this involves running up and down the hill over and over (rather like marching up and down the square). Not surprisingly, this becomes increasingly painful and fatiguing. As such, the pain and fatigue were “trying” to stop me. I wanted to keep running up and down the hill and doing this required expending those will points. This is because without my will the pain and fatigue would stop me well before I am actually physically incapable of running anymore. Roughly put, as long as I have will points to expend I could keep running until I collapse from exhaustion. At that point no amount of will can move the muscles and my capacity to exercise my will in this matter would also be exhausted. Naturally, I know that training to the point of exhaustion would do more harm than good, so I will myself to stop running even though I desire to keep going. I also know from experience that my will can run out while racing or training—that is, I give in to fatigue or pain before my body is actually at the point of physically failing. These occurrences are failures of will and nicely illustrate that the will can run out or be overcome.
After my run, I had my breakfast and faced the temptation of two boxes of assorted chocolates. Like all humans, I really like sugar and hence there was a conflict between my hunger for chocolate and my choice to not shove lots of extra calories and junk into my pie port. My hunger, of course, “wants” to control me. But, of course, if I yield to the hunger for chocolate then I am not in control—the desire is directing me against my will. Of course, the hunger is not going to simply “give up” and it must be controlled by expending will and doing this keeps me in control of my actions by making them my choice.
Naturally, many alternatives to the will can be presented. For example, Hobbes’ account of deliberation is that competing desires (or aversions) “battle it out”, but the stronger always wins and thus there is no matter of will or choice. However, I rather like my view more and it seems to match my intuitions and experiences.
Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man. Fortunately, his efforts were ultimately successful although the path was, I am sure, not quite what he expected. Mainly because the path was mostly track, road and trail rather than field, court and gridiron.
As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp to develop my skills in this reputable game. I was a terrible player with no real skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.
During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Immediately all the other boys rushed to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. While I might not have been the worst player present, I was clearly not the best. I was not even within free throw distance of the best. For some reason, the coach made all the boys do pushups. He also made me do pushups, albeit double the number done by the other boys.
I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed, even to the young me, wrong. I recall quite well getting considerable abuse for my actions, which made me think even more about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone at the time, but I have thought about it over the years.
In recent years, I have run into something similar. I am always asked before I go to race if I will win. I always give an honest answer, which is usually “no.” This always results in an expression of dismay. While I have won races, I am now 46 years old and folks with far fewer years and miles show up to take their rightful place ahead of me, earning this because they are better than I am. My pride and arrogance, of course, compel me to say that when I was the age of many of my competitors, I was faster than they are now. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Barring a TARDIS picking up my twenty-something self to go to the races of now (to save the galaxy, of course—racing is very important) I am forced to content myself with a folly of age: looking back on how good I was and comparing the younger me with my current competition.
One the one hand, I do get the point of self-deception in regards to one’s abilities. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him in the direction of being the best. I do, in fact, know people who are like this and they often push very hard in competition because they believe they are better than they actually are and are thus driven to contend against people who are, in fact, better than them. On the downside, when such people are defeated by those who are better, they sometimes grow angry and concoct excuses for their defeat to maintain the illusion of their superiority.
On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There are, in fact, two well-known cognitive biases that involve a person thinking he is better than he is.
One is known as the “overconfidence effect.” This bias causes a person to believe that she has done better than she has in fact done. As a professor, I commonly see this bias when students get their grades. For example, I have lost track of the times a student has said “my paper felt like an A” when it was a D (or worse) or has said “I think I did great on the test” when it turns out that they did not do so great.
A closely related bias is the “better-than-average Illusion.” A person falls victim to this when she overestimates her abilities relative to others, usually those she is engaged in competition with. Since people often think very highly of themselves, people commonly fall into this trap.
While confidence can be a good thing (and thinking that one is going to do poorly is a way of contributing to making that a reality), this bias obviously has negative consequences. One rather serious problem is that it can lead people to actually do worse. After all, a person who overestimates her performance or abilities might not try as hard as she should—after all, she will think she is already doing much better than she is, thus overestimating her performance and coming to a false conclusion about, for example, her grade. This is most likely to occur when the person does not have immediate feedback, such as on a test or paper.
It can also have the impact of causing a person to “burn out” by trying to hard it based on a false assessment of his abilities. For example, a common sight at road races is inexperienced runners sprinting out ahead of the experienced (and better runners) only to quickly discover that they are not as a capable as they had believed. It can even happen to people who should know better. For example, some years ago I went to the USA 15K championship race as part of a team. Our supposed best runner was bragging about running with the Kenyans. Unfortunately, he got passed by some female runners (as did I—the race attracts top talent) and this apparently broke him to the point where he gave up. I knew my capabilities and was honest about them, so when the fast ladies surged past me I just stuck to my plan. I knew what I could do and what I could not do—and I knew I had a lot of race left and no reason to burn myself out due to a false belief in my abilities. Fortunately, the rest of the team delivered solid races and we took an honorable third place. My experience has been that I do better when I have an accurate assessment of my abilities relative to my competition, most especially in running. Naturally, I do my best—but to do this, I must have a reasonable gauge of what this is to avoid being overconfident and to resist being defeated by my own foolish and unfounded pride.
It might be objected that my rational assessment of my abilities robs me of the critical passion that one must have to be a true competitor. This is, however, not the case. As my friends will attest, while I am gracious in defeat I also hate to lose. In fact, honesty compels me to say that I hate losing slightly more than I love winning. And I really love to win. As such, when I get to the starting line, start presenting a philosophical paper to people looking to score philosophical pissing points, or join a competitive video game I am there to win and to make others lose. But, victory often rests on knowing what I and my competitors can and cannot do. I gain no advantage by deluding myself into thinking I am better than I am or they are worse than they are. True, I am not free of self-deception. But I do not willfully add to it.
Although scientists and philosophers have speculated that time is not real (though they have never missed lunchtime on that basis), it certainly seems to be real enough as an opponent.
When I hit 40 and won my first Master’s award (Master=old), I started looking into the impact of aging on running. I had, of course, learned about aging back when I took anatomy and physiology, but this was a bit more real. While I will spare you the details, the gist of it is that once we humans hit our mid to late twenties, we start a slow spiral downwards (or rapid, depending on how one handles it). While everyone notices this, competitive runners tend to notice it more. This is not because we are somehow more realistic or more perceptive. Rather, it is the fact that we get to see the aging play out it cold, objective numbers as our times get slower and slower. There is also the subjective factor: runs seem to hurt more, one’s stride feels less snappy, and recovery seems to take longer. Or maybe gravity is just increasing in a selective manner-that is, under me.
Fortunately, there is some compensation for these harsh facts: running and exercise in general can be used to fight time. Running is especially effective at literally keeping the cells younger (no magic, just biology) which is why runners often look younger than they are (or, more aptly, other folks look older than they should). Exercise is also critical to resisting two major problems of aging: muscle and bone loss. Like an eroding sandbar, time eats away at the very makeup of our body. Fortunately, exercise that builds muscle and bone can slow down this loss, thus enabling the body to handle aging better. Exercise can also help with balance. Since falls tend to be a major threat to the elderly, building up your fall avoidance and resistance is a smart thing.
Exercise alone, as they say about losing weight, is not enough: diet is also important. When I was young, it mattered less what I ate (or so I thought). Being older, I have less margin of junk (so to speak), and I have had to change my diet to be significantly more healthy. What is actually pretty cool is that what I eat now is not only better for me, but it actually tastes better than much of what I used to eat. It does help that I am not a poor graduate student: eating well is not a luxury, but it is not as cheap as ramen and generic rice puff cereal.
My main goal is not to live really long (although I am fine with that) but to have a good life as long as possible. That seems to be something almost any of us can do, with a little planning and a lot of sweat.
In the end, however, time kills us all. But all races must end and the glory is in the running.
I am a lazy runner. I do not like speed work or hill work. I prefer to simply run distance at a comfortable pace. I have been like this for as long as I have been a runner, which seems to be at odds with the fact that I have run some pretty good times and was even all-conference twice in college cross country. However, my laziness is a relative sort of thing. Back in the day (that is, back when I ran 33 minute 10Ks and 16 minute 5Ks) my comfortable pace for my lazy distance running was 7:00 minutes per mile for 13-16 miles. Back then, I was a running machine: I could lock into that pace and keep it mile after mile.
While I am lazy by nature when it comes to running, I also love to compete. As such, I was willing to set aside my laziness during track and cross country seasons and endure speed work and hill work. After college, I settled back into my lazy distance ways, although I would engage in some social running, even if it involved visiting a track. I did, of course, keep racing and that seemed to work out well.
Sadly, it is no longer back in the day and my lazy ways have ceased to serve me well, mainly because my comfortable pace for 13+ miles is no longer 7 minutes. While I have tried using my GPS watch to force me to run harder, my natural laziness proved to be stronger: I’ll speed up for a mile, then I’ll start slacking until I catch myself.
Thanks to my summer unemployment (budget cuts at the university) I had plenty of extra time and started going to planned and supervised track work outs. Normally I loath doing that, but there are few races in the summer here in Florida, so I just told my lazy self that this was racing (I am, oddly enough, not lazy when I race). However, I am back to teaching again and have to return to my usual schedule, which means no evening workouts. However, these had helped me so much I wanted to keep working hard. As such, I needed a way to defeat my own laziness.
As I mentioned above, I had tried my GPS watch. But its beeps and data fields lacked the power needed to be a cruel master of my running. I needed something with the power to prevent my laziness. In my desperation, I turned to the much hated tread mill (or, as runners often call then, “dread mills.”
My girlfriend recently moved to Orlando, leaving behind her very nice Nordic Track treadmill at my house (along with 7.6 tons of other stuff from her apartment). While I normally scorn treadmills, I realized that the damn thing could force me to run at a certain pace. This would, I reasoned, force me to run fast and also help retrain me to running at a fixed pace. While the readouts for distance and pace are probably not dead on, they are probably pretty close. In any case, my Garmin watch provides accurate time and heart rate data so I would know how long I had been running and my effort.
So, I warmed up by running a few miles outside, then fired up the dread mill. The first time I tried it, I must have triggered some sort of per-programmed workout or death trap: the thing suddenly sped up to a much faster pace and activated the incline feature at the same time. That got my heart rate up pretty good before I could stop it. After re-setting the infernal thing, I was able to run a test 5K on it at a moderate 6:45 mile pace. That worked out pretty well, although the boredom almost killed me. I got some water and then did a five mile run outside. That helped me sweat out the shame of being on a treadmill.
I did find that although the treadmill has some big buttons for controlling the various settings (mainly speed and incline), working them while running was rather awkward and they did not always react when pushed. While I did see that it could be programmed, the actual process seemed to be pretty annoying and limited in its functionality. That is when I noticed the iFit slot (really just an SD card slot). I went online and found that cards could be used to load workouts. I did not want to make Jillian Michaels any richer and wanted to design my own workouts, so I did not buy any of the preloaded cards. I figured that the iFit files were pretty simply (just commands to adjust speed and incline) and found some free software to create my own files. The software is not fancy, but it gets the job done. Because of the way iFit works, it seems that workouts have to be programmed in one minute intervals (this can be exceeded, but is supposed to cause some minor problems). Fortunately, my workout cap on the dread mill is 3 miles of hard running and some rest jogging, which means I only need to program in a bit over 20 minutes. I did read that some SD cards do not work with the iFit readers (usually the ones that are larger than 1 GB). I tried a 32MB card that came with my digital camera and it worked fine. The actual files are very small, so unless you load the card with audio (you can link audio files to the workout, but I do not) a small card should suffice.