On Not Heating With Wood

73184483

Heading home after an early morning meeting on  a recent wet, raw October day I found myself looking forward to building a fire in the wood stove. Then I recalled that we were planning to avoid wood fires for a while to see if it made any difference in the symptoms of a family allergy.  So I’d just have to rely on the oil burner.  But  I was surprised by how disappointed I felt.  What was the trouble?

 

It wasn’t entirely the cost.  It wasn’t one of those ten below zero days when the furnace would grind away ninety percent of the time to keep the house tolerable.  It would only take a few minutes to warm up the place, and because of all the weatherization we’ve done over the years it would remain warm for quite a while before the thermostat called for more heat.  And anyway the price of fuel oil is way down because of all the shenanigans of the marketplace.  I do admit to being pretty thrifty but it wasn’t all the cost.

 

And it wasn’t guilt, even though  I’m plenty concerned about climate disruption and the environmental degradation from burning fossil fuels.  After all, I drive a Prius, I look for Energy Star appliances whenever one needs replacing, and, thanks to my wife’s urging, we have lots of solar panels.  I also try to do my part to persuade our elected officials to ignore all those bogus arguments and huge campaign contributions from the oil, gas and coal folks.  So a couple of pints of heating oil on a raw fall day won’t tarnish my crown in heaven too much.

 

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I think I finally did.  I was disappointed because I like the process of firing up the woodstove and feeling the results of what I’ve done.  I like crumpling up the newspaper – not so tightly that it resembles a log, but loosely enough that the ratio of air to compressed wood fibers permits rapid combustion.  I like laying on just enough kindling – not enough to smother the burning paper but enough to sustain the fire as I lay on larger wood. I feel competent when I do those things and as I do, I am reminded that the wood came from a local tree which has a set of its own amazingly efficient small green solar panels that capture the sun’s radiant energy and store it as chemical energy in the covalent bonds of cellulose being laid down silently all summer right beneath the tree’s knobbly bark – no associated air pollution, no multimillion dollar XL Pipeline, no terrorist threats.   Thinking about all that as I make the fire is better than watching some morning TV talk show.  But missing that process, it turns out, is only part of my disappointment.

 

Another part, I think, has to do with having a broader understanding of my world and where I fit in.  When I build that wood fire – and this is especially true if I’ve cut down the tree and worked up the wood myself – I understand some of the implications.  I know, sort of, how long it took that tree to grow.  I think about how big my woodlot is and whether the steady growth of the hardwoods is greater or less than the rate at which I am taking trees down. In short I have a pretty good idea of whether my woodburning is sustainable.   I also know that by harvesting a tree when I do, instead of letting it die in place, that tree will no longer provide a home first for woodpeckers and then, perhaps a kestrel;  that I’ve messed with the ecology of my woodlot; that it’s not quite as rich a habitat as it would have been were the tree  left standing.    I understand those tradeoffs in a much more immediate way than the tradeoffs involved in opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.  And I also have a pretty good idea about the real costs of staying warm through a whole New Hampshire winter – how many person hours it takes to get that wood down, cut up, split, processed and moved into the cellar before the snow flies.

 

But I’ve saved the best ‘til last.   I realized that the biggest reason I was disappointed by not building a fire in the woodstove when I got home is that I am a control freak. I like to be in charge. I like knowing how to do stuff and calling the shots on how it is done.

 

So, aren’t I in charge when I turn up the thermostat?  Well, no, not really.   I  don’t have much of an idea about how to find oil – though I do know that it sometimes involves setting off underwater explosions which risk blowing out the eardrums of some of earth’s biggest and most mysterious creatures .  I don’t have a clue about how to drill for oil – though I am aware that doing so creates some pretty ugly international relations and often involves opening up pristine wilderness.  I don’t have any idea where to buy a drilling rig or how to set it up or where to hire the crews to man it or who to schmooze with to get the best price when and if the stuff finally comes up out of where it’s been for the last hundred million years.  I don’t have any idea about how to hire a tanker, or determine whether or not the tanker skipper is likely to be drunk when he approaches some reef.  I just know that when I call up my oil company they deliver some oil so my burner comes on when I turn up the thermostat.  All the rest of the stuff is under somebody else’s control and I just don’t like it.

 

So as soon as we figure out that those allergy symptoms aren’t related to the wisps of smoke that occasionally escape while I’m stoking the stove, I’m going back to heating with wood.

A Surfeit of the Humanities

Science-and-humanities

When the academy bisected its world into “arts” and “sciences” it made a big mistake, for the two are no more separate than 18th century literature from eighteenth century history, or chromosomes from the laws of chemistry and physics. By choosing to confer either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree, the world of higher education created a false dichotomy from which seekers of truth have yet to recover.

Keats had it right. “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.” So did Einstein. “Science without religion is lame.” Einstein took the idea further. “A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us…. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Reading about writing and scanning multiple book reviews has created concerns. Clearly, the great majority of today’s literary scene is directed inwards. The modern focus is on one’s thoughts and one’s feelings – either directly or by proxy. Identification with – becoming, if you will – an imagined character is paramount. Abstractions trump physical reality and our interactions with it. In Conversations with Saul Bellow, the great novelist intones, “We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.” To me, that’s like saying we need air more than we need water. I prefer Keats’ vision.

Fortunately, in the 1960’s, medical schools were enthusiastic about accepting non-science majors, and, after forty years of doctoring, I remain as convinced as I was during my physiology class that my professional “training” in medicine was a seamless extension of my Bachelor of Arts in English. Even today, medical school commencement speakers regularly precede the word “medicine” with the phrase “science and art of…”. And while the Nobel Prize in Medicine is always granted to an experimental scientist, the best doctors apply the humanities in the same way that they apply scientific knowledge. Close observation of Picasso’s Guernica enhances the psychiatrist’s ability to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down improves the care a neurologist can render the young woman suffering from epilepsy.

And there are some signs that the gap is closing beyond medicine. Magnetic Resonance Imaging paints arresting pictures of the brain listening to music. Composers write music based on the sounds and rhythms of brain waves.  Award-winning novelists draw on genetics to enrich their characterizations while award-winning scientists publish novels exploring the biologic and behavioral similarities of ants and men. And a young independent publishing house which has already put forward several bestsellers and prize winners announces in its mission statement its devotion to publishing “literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and the sciences….”

A great deal could be gained if the distinction were further blurred and more thinkers and artists turned their attention to bridging the centuries-old gap. We need more animations like The Inner Life of the Cell and fewer like How to Train Your Dragon. We need more books like Anthill and fewer sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey. We need more music like Paul Winter’s Prayer for the Wild Things and less Gangsta Rap. We need ethicists to reflect more on how we treat the planet and not exclusively on how we should treat one another. And we certainly need more scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and fewer curmudgeonly researchers complaining that “popularizers” are somehow a lesser breed of scientist.

Great angst is now being expressed among university faculties in departments of arts and humanities over the dramatic decline in interest in their courses. Fingers are often rightfully pointed at the ascendancy of the almighty dollar in today’s culture and the lure of courses which will insure access to the high-rolling districts of the job market. But a fair amount of the blame, I would submit, should also go to the fact that people simply have had enough anthropocentric omphalospection. Enough detailed dissections of tortured interpersonal relations. Enough obsession with obsession. Despite what Ptolemy thought, we humans are not the center of the Universe and the sooner we turn our full attention to the grandeur and wonder of the full range of its intricacies and our modest place among them, rather than how to exploit them, the better.

Anthropocentric narcissism

 

Narcissus

Perhaps it makes sense that thousands of pages of the nation’s newsprint are devoted each day to whatever small local group has been most successful carrying or kicking an inflated leather sac into an arbitrarily designated space while following an arbitrary set of rules.  And perhaps it also makes sense that nearly all literature, television and cinema, when it is not devoted to the physical accomplishments of us humans, focuses on the dissection of every nook and cranny of the goings on between individual members of our species.  Fascinating by its absence, however, is the attention we pay to the rest of creation.

 

It hasn’t always been that way.  Back when we were coming down out of the trees, it was no less than a matter of life and death that we be keenly interested in what plants were fruiting when, where the big carnivores might be lurking, and the comings and goings of edible non-human protein. And as we became aware of spirituality, we perceived a spiritual element in all sorts of natural entities – thunder gods, sea nymphs, spirit bears – the list is very long.  But even back then, I suspect our interest in Them was primarily because of what They might do to or for US, though the stereotype of some cultures – Native Americans and some Hindu sects for example – is that attention to and care of all creation has great value for its own sake.

 

Where we are now is an entirely different matter.  Most of us in the developed world spend our days in manmade envelopes, untouched by a soft spring breeze or the gust of a thunderstorm, insulated from any part of the non-human world bigger than a gnat.  Many of us, when asked where our food comes from, immediately think of the supermarket down the street rather than the field or feedlot.  Most of us spend the majority of our days focusing our attention on more important or more entertaining things, like the Dow Jones average, the game being played by our city’s baseball team or the shenanigans of the characters in our favorite soap opera or TV series.

 

And just as some traits are beneficial in moderation but counterproductive or even dangerous when excessive ( a bit of anxiety helps muster the mental energy for difficult tasks but excessive anxiety – technically known as chronic anxiety disorder – is paralytic) an overdose of attention to the products, problems and passions of one’s own species to the exclusion of the rest of Creation is at least an impoverished way of being and perhaps is even pathological.  In fact, it may deserve its own medical moniker – perhaps excessive anthropocentricism or species-specific narcissism, chronic omphalospection or, for the scatologically oriented, species-specific caprofixation.

 

“Nonsense!” you may respond. ”Hasn’t our understanding of the way the world works, from the digestive tract of black holes to the intricacies of the genetic code grown exponentially? Haven’t we split the atom and mastered organ transplantation? Haven’t we been to the moon and back?”  Isn’t that proof positive that we are plenty interested?”

 

Well, there’s interest and Interest with a capital “I”.  Our interest in the World Out There is almost exclusively related to how it might serve our species’ interests.   By and large, we aren’t drawn to it in the same way we are to the revolving door narratives of soap operas or TV series.  We’re interested in it because it bears some promise of understanding ourselves better, helping us live longer, generate cheaper energy, or exploit new frontiers.  For the most part, we’re just not Interested in that stuff in the same way that we are in the domestic battles of our next door neighbors.

 

Personally, I think that is problematic on several levels.  At the risk of sounding woozy and weak kneed I’d say that overlooking the wonder and sacredness of The World Out There may be akin to a Christian’s forgetting all about the crucifixion and resurrection or a Jew’s forgetting about the Exodus.  Getting a bit more down to earth, I’d say that with a bit of attitude readjustment, many of us could find the mating behavior of praying mantises even more compelling than a TV character’s infidelity.  And even if we can’t pull ourselves away from the fascinating images of ourselves reflected in that sylvan pool, we need, for our own welfare, to realize that by ignoring what is going on in the world beyond us, our narcissistic species runs the real risk of letting the whole theater, upon whose stage it is strutting and fretting its hour, collapse around us for lack of attentive maintenance.

Is Lightman in the Dark about Nature?

It’s distressing when you come across something written by one of your literary heroes and find you disagree with them entirely.  That happened to me the other day when I came across a piece by Alan Lightman in the May 2, 2014 New York Times called Our Lonely Home in Nature.

Lightman is a distinguished physicist  – and the first person to receive a professorship in both the sciences and the humanities at MIT. You may know him from a wonderful little book of his called Einstein‘s Dreams.   It became an international best seller back in the early ‘90’s and in it,  each chapter has time behaving in a different way.  Sometimes it moves at different rates for different people.  Sometimes it moves forward in fits and starts.  Sometimes it flows backwards.  You get the idea.  It is a wonderful book.

Early on in his NYTimes essay, Lightman and I are on the same page. For all of recorded history, he says, humankind has had a conflicted view of nature.  In ancient times, we made awesome and frightening gods of the natural elements.  But, “Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun?  Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur?…….In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities.”

If he had left it at that, he would still be one of my heroes, but he spoiled it all in the last few paragraphs.  Just because he and his wife have a close call while sailing during a storm, he goes way out on the wrong limb. “We are fooling ourselves”, he writes. “Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.  Nature is purposeless.”

To this I would respond, “Lightman doesn’t know what he’s talking about “ but I say this not in a way to put the distinguished professor down or make him out to be any less brilliant than he certainly is.  It’s not really his fault.  As I have argued in an earlier post ( “Nature” Doesn’t Do the Job), the fault lies with our language.

Lightman’s close call at sea was with the “nature” of natural selection.  Enough bad judgements about being out on the ocean in uncertain weather and that “nature” will gradually rejigger the genes involved in our species’ ability to asses risk.  But the thing which drew him out on the ocean in the first place had something to do with the elation he says he experienced:  the “nature” of vistas, mountains, soaring trees, birdsong.  And there are so many others.

Lightman says later on,  “We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept.”   How’s that again?  Our human constructions are mindless?  Or does our mind, being part of nature, make nature mindful?

I feel like I’m jogging on a Möbius strip.  And maybe that’s not a bad analogy. Maybe being on one side of the choice (Nature = Randomness) and being on the other side (Nature = Mindfuness) are really the same thing.  To stretch things a bit further let’s treat that as an algebra problem:  Randomness = Nature = Mindfulness.  Or…..Randomness = Mindfulness!  Wow!  That’s beginning to sound like another one of my previous posts ( Random:Thoughts).  But if you’re not mathematically inclined perhaps there’s another way of thinking about it.  If you accept your own thoughts as real and mindful and you accept that you are a small subpart of the natural universe then there you are.  There are at least sparks of mindfulness in nature.

Personally, I think those sparks are just part of a much larger conflagration. In fact if I try to let go of the idea that my species is the central entity of the cosmos (an idea which has led us astray more than once in the past) I start imagining my mindfulness as a temporarily detached bit of a much larger source of enlightenment.

But I’m straying from my story.  Eventually Lightman does redeem himself and I have to give him a lot of credit for where his essay ends up – even though I don’t like how he gets there.  For Lightman’s final point is that since “nature” is not about to look out in any special way for us humans and the things we value, we jolly well better look after ourselves.  And that means taking care of the planet we depend on for everything.

Random: Thoughts

There’s an unfortunate choice being offered in the war between those two noisy gangs of soap-boxers –  intelligent designers and materialistic naturalists. The former preach a humanoid god with mundane thought patterns who set the world in motion in a week and now doles out  favors in response to His sycophants’ fervent prayers.  The latter – many of whom have earned impressive scientific bona fides – assure us that  their worldview puts us on a road to explain everything – including thoughts, feelings, and self awareness.  To me, explaining  those most real of realities exclusively in terms of particles, waves and forces is as far fetched as thinking  women descended from someone’s rib.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m definitely on board when it comes to new species originating through a hard-to-predict process of mutations, a few of which improve survivability in a specific environment.  Where I get lost is when I’m asked to leap from that to understanding why I decided to sit down this evening and write.

The materialistic naturalists will point out that an MRI done when I decided to do that would show activation of the very same part of my brain which buzzes in everyone else who gets a creative urge.  Well, if that is the end of it then the entire reason my car goes faster is that  I step on the accelerator harder.  It has nothing to do with the rate at which fuel is delivered to the vehicle’s combustion chambers, or the distillation of gasoline from crude oil, or the tankers which carried the crude from Saudi Arabia to Texas, or the process by which ancient ferns decomposed to make crude oil, etc etc.  What I mean is that there’s a lot more to it than pressing on the accelerator just as there’s more to it than a flash on the MRI in my frontal lobes.

If one winds the materialistic naturalist thinking back to its beginnings, one discovers…..chance.  Molecules bumping into one another randomly.  And after an uncountable number of random bumps among just the right combination of molecules over a very very long time finally just the right set of circumstances occur and – boom – we get the first molecule that is self replicating.  Then, very gradual change – evolution – over time, and the fittest ones survive.  Well, with effort, I can imagine all that happening too.  But the operational words here are “chance” and “random”.  There’s the rub.

The other day I overheard the following between two young women : “So, out of the blue, Tom calls up Mary and says he wanted to, like, break up!  I mean, it was totally random.”

It got me thinking.

The Online Slang Dictionary defines “random” as “unexpected and surprising.”

A more sober source – The Cambridge Dictionary of Statistics – says it means “Governed by chance, not completely governed by other factors.  Non-deterministic.”  Unfortunately there are no entries for either “chance” or “non-deterministic.”

But a traditional word referee -The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary – has this to say about the word “chance.”:

“Something that happens unpredictably without discernible human intention or observable cause.”

When you come right down to it, those words really mean “so complex we Homo sapiens can’t understand the chain of causation.”  We shuffle the cards and deal them out at random – but  if we had watched the shuffle in super slow motion and knew the order of cards in the original deck and had a really good memory and thought very very fast  we would know exactly what cards were being dealt to whom and why.  There were reasons the fellow across from us got that pair of aces.  There was just so much going on so fast no one could predict it.  And, by the way, neither we nor anyone else played a conscious role in making it happen.  Same thing with roulette, really.  And dice?  If we knew how hard they were shaken, the direction of all the forces, the torque of the crap shooter’s wrist and lots of other details we would know in advance exactly how they were going to land.  Those demonstrations in science museums where ping pong balls are dropped onto rows of pegs and end up arranged in a perfect Gaussian pattern?  Same deal.  Random just means really really complicated – so complicated that we mortals can’t follow the process.  It says nothing about ultimate order, or meaning, or purpose.

So when those strict materialistic naturalists preach that life is dictated by a series of random events, I don’t get the least bit depressed.  All they are saying is that they are just as much in the dark about ultimate causes as the rest of us!

And as for that conversation about breaking up?  I’m sure it was unexpected and came as a big surprise to the two young women and probably to Mary as well.  But I suspect there was a great deal of thought behind it by Tom.

Leaf Litter and Rubber Duckies

Imagine two big bins.  One is filled with rubber duckies, pottery shards, space shuttles, DVD’s, playbills, books, skyscrapers, electronic gadgets – stuff like that. It also has an annex full of intangibles like symphonies and TV shows and stories and ideas like democracy, altruism, truth etc. The other bin brims with feathers, pebbles, some pond muck, twigs, clam shells, stars, leaf litter and the like. Its annex of intangibles contains things we don’t really have words for – undiscovered natural laws, the arrival of a thunderstorm,  Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the green fuse through the flower”, etc.  Now put those bins inside your head.  Sometimes I think that’s the way our minds are divided.

 

Popular brain science has long told us that our right and left brains work differently – one side more devoted to things like perceiving emotion, appreciating art, recognizing faces; the other side more devoted to reading text, speaking, math and logic.  Predictably, this is being proven a gross oversimplification.  No matter.  In the thought experiment I’m proposing I’m using mind as opposed to brain.  Think of brain as your computer and mind as its program.  Hardware vs software.  iPhone off the shelf vs apps.  Brain is where stuff is stored, sensations are processed and body parts are made to do their thing.  Mind is – well, nobody really knows for sure.  Its where we experience things like meaning, identity, attention, memories, associations, ideas, emotions.  And maybe even conceptualizing it as a place is off the mark.

 

So back to our bins.  They’re in the mind, not the brain.  And it has probably already occurred to you that bin one contains only man-made things; bin two contains everything else.   The man-made stuff has all cycled through at least one mind – sometimes many – before it became what it is.  It started out as an idea.  Then it was mulled over, reconceived, perhaps talked or written about – then eventually became transformed from the idea to a “realer” reality.  The stuff in bin two – well it’s there with no help from us.  And we often dig into bin two for the raw materials to make the stuff in bin one.

 

I imagine everyone’s bins being different – different in what they contain and how big they are.  And I imagine the two bins get different amounts of people’s time and attention.  Take Aldo Leopold.

 

Back in the early twentieth century, Leopold was a bureaucrat working for the US Forest Service who later became one of the founders of the modern conservation ethic and author of the ecologic masterpiece Sand County Almanac.  I imagine Leopold had a huge bin two – full of  hills and partridge, sandhill crane tracks in the mud, carcasses of white tailed deer brought down by winter starvation, the smell of March.  Of course, like the rest of us, he had plenty of stuff in bin one as well; firearms and fishing poles, typewriters and directives from his boss in the forest service. But his bin two was the really big one – about the same size as Rachel Carson’s.

 

Now for the questions.  Are the bin sizes of each of us fixed or expandable?  Is the way we divide our time between the two something we’re born with or does it evolve?  If it changes, what causes the change?

 

My mind wanders. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond rigorously documents thriving civilizations which imploded in response to abuse and neglect of natural resources:  think Maya, Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenland Community.  I imagine that many of those citizens, as things were falling apart, spent more time rummaging around their bin two – trying to figure out what was happening and doing their best to cope as their world collapsed around them.  And I can imagine an inner city youth – one whose experience of nature in the commonplace sense has been limited to grass growing between the sidewalk cracks and pigeons cooing on his tenement window – discovering on a school field trip to a nature preserve that he has a big but almost empty bin two.  But it seems that usually – by the time we reach our productive years, we’ve pretty well established the ways we look at things and what kind of stuff gets our attention.  For some, the best way to relax is an afternoon reading a book or watching football.  For others, it’s a hike in the woods or an afternoon in a duck blind.  And for many, of course, it’s something of a toss up.

 

So what?  People differ.  In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.  Problems crop up, though, when one kind of taste overpowers; when the taste for bigger houses or ivory jewelry or snowmobile access to National Parks  means disappearing forests or the loss of a chance of anyone ever seeing an elephant in the wild or disturbing the experience of silent wilderness snowshoeing.  That’s one reason it becomes useful to know if the bin sizes can be changed – and if so, how to do it.  But there are others.

 

Consider that rubber duck bobbing in a bathtub.  When 15 month old Julie points to the air-filled yellow blob and utters for the first time something that sounds vaguely like “duck” her parents cheer.  How could anyone be troubled by that?  Well, what if Julie never has the opportunity to get up close and personal with a family of precocial anseriforme hatchlings chasing emerging mosquitoes over the surface of a woodland pond? What if if her idea of “duck” remains for the most part in bin one even if, as she grows older, it is enriched to include the idea of a delicious piece of protein covered in orange sauce.  If things go like that there’ll be some pretty important voids.   There’ll be no wondering how that newly hatched ball of fuzz can emerge from its shell already knowing how to chase mosquitoes, no appreciation of the fact that those webbed feet – so effective at motoring the hatchling through the water – collapse with each forward movement to minimize resistance,  no sense of the timescale involved in accumulating and sorting through all the DNA changes that led to the feet doing that.  In short Julie’s view of the real world will be greatly impoverished and, if one is prone to exaggeration, potentially dangerously so.

 

And one more thing, though it’s difficult to articulate.  Since everything in bin one has already cycled through someone’s mind, it’s meaning – what it has to teach us about the reality outside ourselves – is already framed, simplified, reduced and focused for clarity of human understanding or singularity of purpose.  The stuff in bin two?  That’s the last frontier.  And it happens to have been the first one too.

 

But this thought experiment has run way amok.  Just about every Julie will soon enough realize that there’s a lot more to “duck” than the thing in her bathtub.  She’ll come to distinguish between artifice and the reality it is meant to represent.   Nonetheless, I’ll wager there are orders of magnitude more people today that have held a yellow rubber duckie than have held a warm, feather-light squirming fuzzball while its mother, naturally, quacked hysterically nearby and maybe even risked her life to retrieve it.  And it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t have important implications.

 

 

 

Neither Black nor White; Vanilla Instead

I am regularly reminded that there has to be more to it.  It happened again just recently at a relative’s memorial service.    The minister, in an insightful eulogy,  highlighted the deceased’s positive attributes and deftly skirted the negatives with quirky humane anecdotes.  Then she got to the part about being welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven by the hand of God.  That’s where  I got lost.

Where do those religious images get their power?   How can so many otherwise reasonable people swallow these ancient myths?  Given our species’ proclivity to cook up bunkum, isn’t there a strong case  that, millennia ago, in the smoky murk of their tents, village elders invented these tales to pacify their tribes just as we have invented Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to brighten the lives of our kids, and maybe even, as a side effect, encourage them to  “be good.”  In spite of this,  the most ardently religious among us have taken on the modern scientific community – offering up intelligent design to replace Darwinian evolution.  Sadly, that has so infuriated some scientists that they are now making equally hard-to-believe claims.

Most outspoken among them has been Richard Dawkins.  He responds to the intelligent designers in his book River Out of Eden:  “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. ”  Then, in The God Delusion, he takes the gloves off:   “The only watchmaker is the blind forces of physics.”   So now the hand of a personal, all-seeing god has been replaced by blind physics?

Don’t get me wrong.  Physics has explained a lot.  It has given us lasers, computers, and atomic energy.  But can it ever explain self awareness, or love, or fear or the infinitude of other ideas and emotions which are much more palpably part of my reality than, say, electrons.    Dawkins, it seems to me, has made a leap of faith as audacious as that of the minister.  I imagine that, if asked, he would say that these obvious realities have not YET been explained by the forces of physics, but that they soon will be. Well, good luck.

Once upon a time, sages knew that the cosmos rotated around the earth.  Then Copernicus, Galileo and Newton set the record straight, explaining the way the laws of physics explained how the solar system worked.  And now our modern sages say the laws of physics, as they know them, explain EVERYTHING.

Of course this claim, which seems to deny the reality of the very house we live in, gets the religious community pretty animated.  And, indeed, there is blood in the water and the intelligent designers smell it.   They sense the wound in the argument.  They perceive a lack of face validity. And they enthusiastically send their legions into the battle for hearts and minds to knock on doors, run for school board and petition their legislatures with an even more cockeyed weltanschauung.

Like civilians caught in a crossfire between warring radicals, this leaves us common folk running for cover.  Faced with a choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives most of us enter denial and  go about our lives as though there is no need to think about the big picture.  But underneath it all, we know the big picture is pretty important for our peace of mind.  And even though it is tempting to think about this stuff as an either or situation, I think that the truth may well lie elsewhere.

I’m no philosopher and I am certainly no physicist but some writings by NYU Professor of Philosophy Thomas Nagel in his book Mind and Cosmos, and other recent ideas put forward by some respected physicists in an article in Scientific American suggest alternatives to those conventional wisdoms and they do so coming from very different disciplinary directions.  The philosopher’s ideas appeared in a NYTimes Opinionator piece of August 18, 2013 where he argues convincingly that self awareness and the ability to reason are just as “real” as a chair.  He further makes a strong case that an understanding of these things is simply not accessible to the physical sciences.  At about the same time in the August 2013 issue of Scientific American, Meinard Kuhlman reviews the ideas of several physicists who, addressing the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, argue that the basic elements of reality are not particles and energy but ……….relationships and qualities!

Perhaps we’re getting somewhere.  Or at least we may be on a path out of the two intellectual deserts in one of which we and the rest of the cosmos are a meaningless accident while in the other we are the plaything of a bearded old gent who, like Santa Claus, takes us on his knee and promises to give us what we ask for if we’re good.

I don’t pretend to know where the path ends, or if it ends at all.  But I am tempted to believe that along the way a story emerges that takes into account the 95% of mass in the universe that those brainy scientists tell us is “dark matter”, makes clear to common mortals how Schroedinger’s cat in a box can be both alive and dead at the same time, acknowledges the fact that the feelings I have towards those I love are as real as the chair I’m sitting on and proves, unequivocally, that Descartes was right when he said “I think, therefore I am.”  And so, by the way, are you!

Tilting at Windmills

I was discussing renewable energy a while back with a neighbor.  His politics are a bit more to starboard than mine, but he’s a thoughtful fellow and has reached the conclusion, as have I, that climate change is a significant threat.  We both agreed on the need to develop a portfolio of non-fossil energy sources.  As we enumerated the costs and benefits of each type, we got to wind.

“Now there’s a technology that has a lot of promise.  Cheap, clean, and plenty of it to go around.  But I read the other day that there’s a noisy lobby against it.  Seems there’ s a bunch of people afraid that windmills are going to kill too many………” he paused dramatically and then his face contorted into a look of astonished disbelief   “……birds!   Can you imagine?  Holding America’s energy needs hostage because windmills may knock off some…….birds!”

Here was a tough choice.  Take on a set of values very different from mine and risk ruining the conversation, or move on to solar.  Coward that I am, I chose the sun.  But it got me thinking.

What is it, after all, that made the tradeoff such a no-brainer for my neighbor.  Was he unaware of the mountainous havoc our species is inflicting on Earth’s biodiversity?  Should I tactfully suggest he might enjoy reading  The Sixth Extinction in which Elizabeth Kolbert makes a powerful argument that our impact on the planet’s flora and fauna  is comparable to the asteroid collision of the Cretaceous–Paleogene era which wiped out three quarters of earth’s species and, irony of ironies, allowed Homo sapiens to evolve and flourish in the resultant vacuum?  Might information like this shift his values?

Or is it more a matter of religion?  Is he following his God’s directive to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”  If that’s the case, I should have steered the conversation towards what “having dominion” means.  Common parlance would have us think of mankind lording it over the rest of creation but there is clearly an element of husbandry and protection in that word.  After all, if rulers fail in their responsibility to keep their charges safe they don’t remain rulers for very long.

Or perhaps an economic argument would have appeal.  One of the things taken for granted about birds – bats as well – is the prodigious amount of pest control they perform – at no cost to farmers and no increase in the health risk or the price of food to the consumer.   An article in the March 2013 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin, researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimates the number of birds killed by wind turbines in the US in 2012 at 573,000.  And in the December 2013 issue of the Journal BioScience researcher Mark Hays, in a peer reviewed article, calculates current bat deaths from wind turbines in the US to be between 600,000 to 900,000 individuals.  That translates into a lot of boll weevils, corn borers and fat green tomato hornworms still munching away.

And then there’s  the contribution to the national economy of all those birdwatchers buying binoculars, birdhouses, spotting scopes and sunflower seeds.  That might have some sway, especially if my neighbor has some stock in Nikon or Bushnell

Of course none of these pragmatic considerations gets at the heart of what bothers me about  those half million plus birds getting smacked out of the sky each year.  For me and, I think, a good many similarly-wired folks, it’s a bit as if a bunch of Van Gogh paintings were tossed in the dump, or copies of The Sun Also Rises got burned, or the Olympics got cancelled one cycle, or TV programming was reduced by a couple of hours a week – stuff like that.  If one of those batted birds happened to be the brilliantly sun-struck black and gold oriole whose bell-clear note sails down at me from a tall tree as I walk out my door in May,  my world would definitely lose some of its richness and beauty.  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d even be willing to pay a couple of cents more on my electric bill each month so long as that oriole keeps coming back.

There’s an interesting difference between the paintings, the books, the sports accomplishments, the programming coming from a big flat screen TV and that oriole.  Those first four things are all creations by us, and their subjects, for the most part, happen to be……us.  The oriole, on the other hand……. but that’s a subject for another blog.

Readers’ Terror Alert System

Words ought to be color coded.  Not necessarily the U.S. government’s once-upon-a-time five level system of fear and paranoia in which yellow, appropriately enough, recommended remaining scared in spite of no immediate threat.  A three level system will be sufficient for words.  Here’s how it will work.

Green words mean what they say, plain and simple.  Red words are communication suicide bombers; their meaning is assigned independently by the user and the usee. That can cause trouble.  A yellow word is somewhere in between the red and green ones; not entirely clear but safe.

“Twenty-six” is a nice green word.  It means the same thing to everyone who hears it.

The words for lower numbers, by and large, are yellow. “Two” calls to mind all sorts of things –  company? for tea?  to tango?  And consider “sixteen” – so sweet and never been kissed?  But twenty-six is twenty-six. Definitely green.

“Science” is a red word.  Webster’s says “science” means the state of knowing and that “scientific” means of, relating to, or exhibiting the methods or principles of science.  Why, then, do so many good writers speak of “scientific” facts? Are there unscientific ones?

And what about all those passionate people for whom “science” means a grand conspiracy intent on putting the oil companies out of business and making us ride bicycles, to say nothing of attacking their religion.   For them science is a four letter word.

Not surprisingly,  professional practitioners of science don’t feel that way.  For them, “science” seems to mean the best truth obtainable. And isn’t truth something absolute?  But then, don’t people of faith feel that way about their, well, Faith.  So Faith and Science are identical?  Seems unlikely.

When pressed, some scien-tists say that science is a method. They say they imagine how something works and then try to do something which they couldn’t do if their imaginary explanation was wrong.  They call it testing a hypothesis with an experiment but it all starts in their imagination.  If  they end up being able to do what they imagined they could do if their original imaginary idea was true, they feel as though they’ve found a new truth.  But then if someone else comes along with another experiment and it ends up showing the opposite they don’t give up on the scientific method.  They just keep imagining and doing experiments. Keeps them in business. So the next time somebody says “but it’s been scientifically proven” run for cover.

Now for “economy”. Back to Webster’s. “Thrifty and efficient use of material resources….efficient and concise use of nonmaterial resource…the arrangement or mode of operation of something…a system especially of interaction and exchange…the structure of economic life in a country.”  What’s that last one? An adjective used to define the same noun it’s derived from?  Would defining “blue” as a bluish color get us anywhere other than in circles?  For a word that was among the top two dozen used in the last presidential debates, Webster seems to have missed the boat entirely.  “Economy” is definitely red.

For lots of people, it seems, a good economy means “I have a job.”  For others it means “my 401 K is growing at 12%.”  For others it means “I can afford stuff.”  For our elected leaders it seems like the whole enchilada. If it’s good for the economy it is Good.   But wait.

Hurricanes are good for the economy.  They create jobs and demand for products.   So is sickness.  Pumps up hiring in the healthcare sector.   And credit card debt – means you’re a real patriot spending what you don’t have.  And cars that rust out after five years – no problem, helps the economy. Keeps those auto workers employed. Think about regulations that will reduce the toxicity of the air we breath?  No way, the economy will suffer. Clean water?  Same deal.  Lower greenhouse gas emissions?  Flies in the face of common sense.  I’m getting confused. Maybe this whole matter is so complex I need a philosopher to help me out.

Thomas Carlyle, a famous Scottish philosopher whose ethnic stereotype puts him among the very most economical people in the world called teachers of economics respectable professors of the dismal science.

A double red!  Watch out.!

 

Welcome

Come in, come in.  I’m  glad you’re here.  It is wonderful of you to take the time.  I’ll do my very best to make it worth your while.

Not a diversion, though.  Not by any means.

Not an escape either.  And you’re more likely to find questions than answers.

But for some who find their way here and choose to stop and taste what’s offered, some food for thought, I hope, with pleasure in the chewing.