Yesterday I posted one of my favorite quips of good advice: “Whatever you do today is what you do.” I can’t remember the source but a reader sent me a similar quote from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend out lives.”
Following the Annie Dillard rabbit hole – it’s a Saturday and I’ve got a few minutes to wander leisurely – I found this wonderful essay written by William Deresiewicz titled Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard? The essay is putatively a review of Dillard’s new book of essays The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, but it is more of a review of Dillard’s work over the last forty years. The essay captures Dillard’s genius and makes me want to go back and read every word she has written. I immediately dashed off a tweet to Deresiewicz and thanked him for the best ten minutes I’ve had in a very long time.
Not everyone will enjoy Dillard. She is sublime when writing about nature. Materialists will bristle, though, as under every gorgeously described husk of a dead dragonfly she is searching for hints of god. Theists of a traditional sort will feel the same irritation. The god she seeks is not found in medieval scripts. Whatever your view, I cannot for a moment imagine someone reading Ms. Dillard and not coming away enriched.
Here’s a little existential absurdity to brighten your day!
Copyright Dennis Mitton
I was reminded of this bit of classic existential absurdity the other day listening to the Philosophize This! podcast.
We imagine that we are modern and progressive. Animals, yes, in an abstract evolutionary sense, but something special nonetheless. We read, use phones, we prepare lovely meals, and think hard about important things. We drive cars to work where we shuffle paper and make sure that the factory line keeps moving. We have morals. The reality, though, and we have late Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre to thank for reminding us of it, is that we are nothing more than animals of the barnyard kind. We sit to eat at a table of cobbled together tree parts. Our meals are dead and rotting plants and animals. We grunt to each other and shrink from the dark and mysterious in fear. We have learned how to fashion rocks into metal. From a certain vantage – The Planet of the Apes? – we are no more than worms with arms and legs.
This is what existential absurdity is. That we imagine that we are something far different than what we really are. For Sartre and Camus, this opens the door to a kind of freedom. If what they say is true, then aren’t we able to forge any meaning we want? What forces us to engage in what we have had no choice in choosing?
Good stuff to try out at your next little get-together for a round of adult beverages!
I’ve seen this question batted around lately and it’s become more interesting as I’ve been having a conversation with a so-called intelligent design adherent and author. We’re talking about research that I reported on regarding bacteria that grow new flagella over a weekend after having the protein that regulates flagellum construction knocked out.
The research is interesting – I argue that it’s a prime example of a mutation adding something positive to a genome – but I’m fascinated at how both of us present the same information and ‘arrive’ at different conclusions. I put ‘arrive’ in quotes because I wonder if either of us is truly looking hard at the evidence but are just regurgitating our biases. I don’t like thinking that I do this but how many times have you ever really listened to someone and weighed what they were saying and then changed your minds to agree with them? I’m in that same boat.
In this case, I’ve tried to stop and observe my reasoning. I’ve written down each step in the research finding and asked if this is reasonable. I think it is. At the end, I state that this shows how mutations can add information to the genome and increase fitness. My chatting partner looks at the same list and concludes that this can only be accomplished by a designer. Someone or something had to make this work this way. There is no way that this could happen without an intelligence behind it. When this kind of teleological glove is thrown down there is just no more room for discussion.
I’m not talking about decision making. This is easy. I’m talking about beliefs. I’m talking about the set of rules that you’ve glommed onto or slapped together that dictate your world view and how you live. We tell ourselves that we have examined the evidence and have come to a thoughtful position but I doubt that’s true in many cases. We get our ideas about right and wrong and truth from our genes, from our parents, our school, our culture, from the books we read, and from friends.
The hardest thing I’ve changed my mind about was my Christianity. I was once an engaged Christian but now label myself as deeply agnostic. And I’m not talking about the ‘I’m not religious, just spiritual’ canard. I live mostly as an atheist but argue hard that neither the theist nor the atheist can truly hammer down their argument to a firm conclusion. Religion seems increasingly untenable to me and, at least for me, the observation that no god exists seems most basic, natural, and fundamental.
There are other things that I almost forbid myself to think about. Abortion is one. My practical and reasonable mind tells me that abortion should be supported, and oftentimes, encouraged. But my doubts about any afterlife creates a loathing in me at the thought of taking life from anyone. I am strongly against capital punishment and feel queasy about abortion as taking away something too precious. I don’t want to be the arbiter of what life we value over another. I recognize my own inconsistency here. I eat meat and have dispatched plenty of research animals. If I’m wrong, and god is a rat, then I am in some serious trouble. I don’t hunt but have no real argument with it other than just killing for fun. So there are areas where I know I’m not consistent.
How about you? What have you changed your mind about?
I listened to a conversation with a smart guy named David Krakauer who is the current head of the Santa Fe Institute. He studies the evolution of complexity with an interest in what he calls ‘stupidity’.
He remarks that lots of people study excellence and success and intelligence but few ask questions about being stupid. He uses a Rubik’s Cube to describe stupid. The cube can be solved randomly in some billion squared moves or so. Thus, with enough time, anyone can solve the cube. So, this random solving is the bar set for smart/stupid. ‘Smart’ is when we learn steps that help us solve the cube. We remember those steps and use them to formulate a plan to make success easier and faster. In this case, it’s learning how to spin the cube to align the colors on all faces. By doing so, we are able to solve the puzzle faster than we could making random moves.
‘Stupid’ is when we perform in a way that will never, ever lead to success such as learning how to align the colors on one face only. You will never be able to beat the cube by aligning one face only. Without learning how the faces interact you fall into the trap of doing the same thing while expecting different results. He argues that what we call intelligence and IQ are really just a trained memory and that ‘smart’ is the ability to make complex things simple.
He also talks about information categories or what he calls ‘m-cubed mayhem’. I run into this constantly with creationists but it’s a good check on your own thinking. The ‘m-cubed’ is math, model, and metaphor. The mayhem is when speakers don’t know the difference of the definitions and mix them up.
He refers to math as the real thing. In other words, the mathematical description of a cube is the cube. I don’t really like this. It smacks of neo-Platonism to me and I much prefer good old Aristotelian rocks and wood. Models are when we describe how a thing works or relates to other things and metaphors are linguistic tricks to make what is complex appear more simple. We run into problems when we mix things up or forget that models and metaphors aren’t the real thing. This rears its ugly head when the likes of Perry Marshall declares that DNA is a code and all codes have a creator, thus DNA has a creator, thus God.
It’s also an interesting way to think about what we know and what we don’t. He talks about physics as ‘simple’ (simple to him maybe!) to convert to numbers because, while possibly difficult to understand, physics isn’t that complex. It’s very easy to break down into if-then formulas. Imagine deriving a mathematical description of a car driving through a busy downtown street. It boggles the mind because of the complexity. We might be able to develop a model but to hone the event down to a formula is probably impossible.
So remember, in the words of Rene Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe.
I spent the weekend in Alexandria, VA, and came away wondering what the heck Peruvian chicken is and isn’t a restaurant named Pollo Chicken just Chicken Chicken? Funny but I’m getting the BBQ fired up this weekend to make some. Sounds delish.
We shared our motel with the Golden Crown Literary Society annual conference which looked like lots of fun. The society promotes lesbian lit of all forms. There was lots of laughing, lots of short haircuts, and lots of good looking vittles. I had a good laugh with one of the women. She was manning (a pun!) the pastry/coffee bar which was open only to conference attendees. I told her that I would gladly become a lesbian for a plate of pastry – like giving up my birthright for a bowl of stew. She was completely droll and nonplussed and shot back that I looked like any average white heterosexual old man…Not that there’s anything wrong with that! We both had a good laugh over that. And no coffee! As an outsider, it seemed good to me that these women could be themselves here. I’m sure that many come from places where it’s difficult to admit to being a lesbian, or gay, or what-have-you. I did laugh, though, when one of our girls wondered aloud about why so many women were wearing suits?
It’s this being an outsider that has me thinking. A couple of weeks ago Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True published a question asking Should Men Shut Up About Abortion? The post was prompted by this letter to the editor. It’s a perennial question that comes up almost anytime anyone has something to say. Should I be allowed to opinionate about lesbians? About Black Lives Matter? About abortion?
Yes and here’s why:
All of these questions have something of shared human experience embedded in them. I cannot speak to what it is to be a Christian in Iran but I can talk about what it is like to wonder about meaning. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be a lesbian in South Carolina but I know something (not much) about love and relationships. I’ve never had an abortion and don’t have a uterus but I have opinions about individual autonomy and women’s rights. I don’t want to tell anyone how they should feel but I have every right to join in to a conversation about how society deals with any issue.
Secondly is that as a member of this tribe – city, state, nation, human – I can speak to the structural components of the question. Have we institutionalized prejudice into our churches and businesses? How does the abortion industry affect the country? Does free health care and college put a greater onus on working people to pay for programs? When we dial down our differences, we finally come to a point where no one can talk about anything. How many white, evolutionist, Washingtonians born to a Slovak mother, who was known to show up at high school looking like Alice Cooper do you know? Is is fair for me to say that unless those labels fit you then you have nothing to say to me! No. In fact to silly and serves only to separate.
I also have a certain expertise which no longer means what it once did. We used to ask scientists about food issues. Now we go to Food Babe. Autism was largely a medical mystery until a party-gal actress straightened everyone out. There are certain academic areas where I am very comfortable saying that this is true. It’s not true because I say it but because the weight of evidence tilts in that direction. In areas where I am not an expert, I defer to experts. First. And check out the evidence. When I am excluded from a conversation it is usually because other opinions or other evidence isn’t welcome. This is epitomized by the Christian catchphrase of ‘God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!’ Do you think this person wants a conversation?
In the same vein, we can see that open conversation helps to stem the tide of, well, stupidity. Go here to see a proposed paper on the feminist view of glaciers (paywall). Jerry Coyne reports of a new paper published in the Dance Research Journal titled The Pilates Pelvis: Racial Implications of the Immobile Pelvis wherein the author attempts to prove that pilates – at least the ‘Single Leg Stretch’ and ‘Leg Circles’ – reveal a white, privileged, and racist bias. Should I be able to have an opinion about this? The author lectures at the University of New Mexico with the future goal of ‘deepening her work in the embodied cultural and racial issues in Pilates’. I pay for at least part of this, and happen to like pilates and yoga, so I get to have an opinion. Thanks very much for asking.
There is a caveat to all of this – I can’t speak to the feelings of these experiences. (Which is one reason I like to read fiction.) I don’t know how it feels to experience what you do – only you can know that. And you can’t know what it’s like to feel exactly like I do. The only way we can bridge this gap is if you let me in on the conversation.
So stand on your street corner or on your soapbox or in your pulpit or at your computer and speak your mind. Join in on a conversation but remember that conversations run in at least two directions. Invite other voices and opinions. Parse other views. Knowing what they are doesn’t mean accepting them. It means that you are wise to try to understand why others feel as they do. And if we no longer believe is expertise then maybe we should at least seek a little wisdom. We will all be better for it.
I’ve recently written a couple of short blurbs (here and here) about how our sense of right and wrong develops from nature. This is extraordinarily unsatisfying and offensive to many people. They want to know how we avoid moral pandemonium without a set of rules about right and wrong that come from on high. This is a different question than what I am asking but is closely related. So how do we know what to do? How do we set up a legal system? I am invariably asked how to hold rapists or Hitler responsible for their actions if there are no morals that are eternally enforceable?
These are good questions that wrap ideas about free will and morality and god into one so it can be hard to winnow out simple observations. But the idea that morals are unchanging is historically and theologically indefensible. We can use any religion but I’m most familiar with Christianity: what eternal truth can be championed as an unchanging expression of god’s character? Maybe that children are treasures? I think they are as do most parents but the Hebrew God doesn’t. There is the story of God telling his favorite, Abraham, to take his child’s life as a test of faith. And I’ve read the Bible story about Lot who, in order to save a group of visitors from harm, offered his daughters to a group of gang rapists. I read in the prophets where God instructs Israelite warriors to not even spare the enemy’s children, but to smash their heads upon stones. And while they’re at it – just for good measure – to ‘rip open their pregnant women’.
In each case there are theological explanations. And that is fine. But the idea of the sanctity of children as a universal moral stance isn’t supported. A similar conversation can be had about marriage. We see plural marriage, old men marrying young women, and men taking women as possessions throughout the scriptures. And when there are no men around, as in Noah’s time, we read that his daughters drunked him up and had sex with him. Noah isn’t thrilled about the event but there is nothing to indicate that what the women did was morally wrong.
That fact is that morals are a moveable feast. We sense them as overarching and inviolate because they are those things in our culture. And culture moves slowly. It took a hundred years of US history – where all men are created equal – to remove chains from Africans. It took another hundred to finally call them equal. It took 150 years to recognize that women are smart enough to vote. We still struggle with allowing a human being to love anyone they want to.
Knowing that morals developed culturally due to genetic proclivities doesn’t lessen their importance. In a sense, it heightens their value as they give insights into how we are programmed to live successfully within groups. It does, however, remove the onus to follow beliefs handed down by fiat, only because we are told to do so. It elevates the importance of the human being and reduces the importance of religion. Which, of course, is what all the hubbub is about.