Sunday, March 31, 2013

Practice resurrection

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Into the pool – a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in June 2008.)

Let's start this morning with a bit of late-Victorian soft porn, Hylas and the Nymphs, painted in 1896 by the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse. (Click to enlarge.) Hylas is one of the Argonauts, sailing with Jason in quest of the Golden Fleece. While the ship is stopped at an island, he goes in search of fresh water. As he stoops to fill his jug at a woodland spring he encounters a bevy of naiads, who fall madly in love with the heartbreakingly handsome youth. They invite him into the pool -- and he is never heard from again.

Did he find with those immortal beauties every young man's idea of bliss? Or, mortal that he was, did his lungs fill with water and...? I'll come back to the question. But first, it is Hylas in another appearance that I want to consider: as participant in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, written in 1713 by George Berkeley, Irish philosopher, later Bishop of Cloyne.

Berkeley, as every philosophy student learns, was an arch anti-materialist. The material world out there is an illusion. The only reality is in our minds. It is an old idea, going back to Plato at least. And, it must be admitted, the question of how ideas of things are related to a presumed external reality is central to philosophy. Berkeley's solution is simple: deny the existence of a physical world out there. Matter does not exist.

He had a not-so-hidden agenda. By denying materialism, he meant to clear the way for belief in God and the immortality of the soul.

In the dialogues, Philonous takes Berkeley's role; his name means "lover of mind." Hylas begins the exchange as a materialist, convinced that ideas are reflections of a knowable external reality; his name means "wood" in ancient Greek, or more simply "matter." You can guess who wins the debate.

You will also remember Samuel Johnson's reaction to Boswell's report of Berkeley's anti-materialism. He kicked his foot forcibly against a stone. "I refute it thus!" said the inimitable Johnson. Today's naturalists are more impressed by Johnson's sore toe than by Philonous' long-winded philosophizing. We are the heirs of Hylas, the erstwhile materialist, confident that consensus scientific knowledge of the world reflects in some meaningful way a reality that exists independently of ourselves. We are content to let Berkeley's God and immortal souls remain phantoms of Berkeley's mind.

Which brings us back to the other Hylas, the one in the painting. He is not a philosopher. Merely mortal. Attracted to the importunings of the comely spirits of the pool, ready to plunge or be pulled into the world of nature, hoping perhaps to find there some measure of material bliss, fated for oblivion.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Fishing for answers

OK, we agree that consciousness is a mystery we would most like to see solved. That's been the case since philosophy began. After all, nothing is more interesting than ourself, and self and consciousness are pretty much the same thing.

Is consciousness an emergent property of neuronal activity; that is, is mind inseparable from the physical brain? Or does consciousness partake of something that transcends the flesh? The stakes are huge. The immortality of the soul presumably rides on the answer.

The scientific consensus has settled on the former hypothesis, for the simple reason that it lends itself to experimental investigation. The non-scientific community is generally attached to the latter hypothesis, for the simple reason that most people want to live forever.

And here, precisely, is the crux of the cultural war that pits science versus religion.

How to resolve the issue?

One can sit around and ponder, as philosophers are wont to do. They have been doing it for thousands of years, and have made no substantial progress. Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos might have been written in Plato's time.

Or one can ask nature for the answer, which turns out to be damnably difficult given the staggering complexity of the human brain.

And this is where reduction comes in. Start small. Take on the problem piece by piece. Nibble away at the riddle from the bottom up.

Which is what Harvard University's Florian Engert is doing, as described in the 24 January issue of Nature. Engert works with zebrafish larvae, tiny creatures with just 300,00 or so neurons. They can be genetically modified so that their neurons light up when they fire. And because the fish are transparent, their neuronal activity can be observed as the fish react to various stimuli. I won't say anything more about the experiments; you can watch a video here.

Of course, zebra fish are a pale representation of the human brain, but they are conscious of their environment and react to stimuli. The human brain has about 85 billion neurons, hundreds of thousands times more than zebrafish. Does that difference alone account for our greater degree of self-consciousness and the richness of our cognitive lives. Time will tell. Engert's experiments are just one of many possible ways of approaching the question empirically.

My opinion counts for nothing (to anyone but me), but I'm inclined to think we stand to learn more about the nature of consciousness from a clever scientist with a zebrafish than from a gaggle of philosophers.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cranes or skyhooks?

In the late 19th century, an intractable problem bedeviled scientists.

Geologists had convincingly demonstrated that the Earth was hundreds of millions of years old, and fossil evidence suggested that life had been around for most of that time. Which means the Sun must have been burning more or less steadily throughout the duration.

Yet physicists and chemists could not provide any credible source of energy that would keep the Sun shining for all that time. Not gravitational contraction. Not chemical combustion or any other known chemical reaction.

Nada. Nothin'. Zippo.

So what to do? Do we abandon the geological time scale, perhaps affirming anew the biblical chronology? Do we hypothesize some cosmic or supernatural energy source to keep the stars burning? Does the failure of physicists to account for the Sun's extended lifetime prove the geophysical paradigm "almost certainly false"?

Well, no. Not false, but, as it turned out, incomplete. The new century brought a new insight: the equivalence of matter and energy and E=mc2. Riddle solved.

And what is the moral of this story for the problem of consciousness? Don't rush to conclusions that confirm your personal prejudices. Wait and see.

It may yet turn out that the riddle of consciousness can be resolved within the context of materialist neo-Darwinian science. Certainly, research on that basis is proceeding apace. The fact that consciousness evolved in step with neuronal complexity gives gentle hope for the eventual reduction of consciousness to an activity of the electrochemical brain.

On the other hand, it may turn out that neuroscience needs a paradigm shift comparable to E=mc2.

Either way, we stay within a naturalistic worldview.

Daniel Dennett's 1991 book Consciousness Explained promised more than it delivered. Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos delivers considerably less than it promises. Of the two, Dennett at least provided a possible schemata for ongoing research. Nagel provides wishful thinking.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Nagel ado

I've now read Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, and, frankly, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

Nagel's argument goes something like this: Consciousness cannot be explained within the current evolutionary physio-chemical paradigm –- that is, consciousness is irreducible within the context of contemporary science. Therefore, a new paradigm is required, one admitting an irreducible cosmic consciousness, a natural teleological principle that guides and informs nature.

Nagel's "proof" of the irreducible nature of consciousness is unconvincing. His language betrays him. The book is replete with "I believe" and "it seems to me." His argument comes down to this: I do not believe consciousness can be explained within the current framework of science, therefore it can't. This is what Dawkins has called "the argument from personal incredulity."

"That, at any rate, is my ungrounded intellectual preference," writes Nagel, giving the game away.

Consciousness may or may not be reducible. We'll wait and see. If Nagel wants to caution the Dawkins/Dennett crowd against hubris, well and good. But he claims more than that, and doesn't deliver.

Not only does he fail to demonstrate the incompleteness of the current scientific paradigm, he is unable to provide an alternative theory -- which he admits is necessary -- other than a vague idea of cosmic consciousness with zero explanatory power. "A genuine alternative to the reductionist program would require an account of how mind and everything that goes with it is inherent in the universe," he writes. And this he manifestly doesn't do.

To say, as his subtitle states, that the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature "is almost certainly false" is a bridge too far. That it might be incomplete, in the sense that the Newtonian conception of nature was incomplete, is a given that few would dispute. No need to write a book about that. Nagel's 128 pages of wishful supposings add less to our reliable knowledge of nature than any random paragraph in the weekly journals Science and Nature.

So far, the reducibility or irreducibility of consciousness is an open question. Ockham's razor anoints reducibility as the default assumption. Excessive fervor on one side of the question or the other is more a product of a priori ideology than of logical or empirical proof.

An historical analogue tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The broken web

Every fall, when a mysterious seasonal alarm clock tells them to go, the monarch butterflies of our New England meadows set off on one of the most remarkable migrations in the animal kingdom. They wing their way to a tiny patch of forest in the mountains of central Mexico that they have never visited before, where they are joined by millions of their cousins from all over eastern North America. They rest and feed and wait out the winter. Then, in the spring, they set out for northern meadows, breeding and dying along the way. There will be no Mexican veterans to lead the next migration south.

How do they do it? How does a butterfly that has never made the journey know when to set out and where to go? That pinch of flesh with postage-stamp wings? The call, the map, and the navigational skills must surely lie in the monarch's DNA. The DNA encodes proteins. The proteins are a language of geometry that speaks through the monarch's nervous system: "Ven, sigueme! Come follow me."

To merely contemplate this mystery is wonder enough for a lifetime. Readers of my book The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe will know that I was once lucky enough to visit the monarch over-wintering refuge in Mexico. It was one of the most awe-inspiring adventures of my life: Tens of millions of monarchs, as thick as leaves on the trees. When they took to the air their numbers blocked out the sun. You cold hear the soft rush of their wings. On that trip, we also visited with the poet Homero Aridjis at his home in Mexico City. Aridjis has been instrumental in protecting the patches of forest crucial to the monarchs' survival.

That was some years ago. I recount it now because of a recent op-ed in the New York Times by Aridjis and Lincoln Brower, another champion of the monarchs. The monarchs are threatened as never before.

Nature strews the planet with miracles, which we have a gift for trampling. Even eco-tourists like me inadvertently contribute to the destruction of wonders that took nature millions of years to contrive. If I may paraphrase from The Path: The poet E. E. Cummings wrote of acceptance "for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes." Science and politics and poets alone will not save the monarchs. What is required is a deeply felt, unintellectualized, instinctive "yes" -- a sense that behind the gaudy delight of 20 million butterflies hanging on fir trees, there is a natural and infinite power that binds all life in a holy web.

Monday, March 25, 2013

On and off the grid

I generally stay out of the discussions on Comments, preferring to listen and learn. And it's the rare commenter I personally know. But GJW is a friend of mine, and a frequent lunchtime companion. I won't speak to his philosophy, but he is certainly less skeptical than I am, and does his best to pry open the door of my credulity when he thinks I'm closing it too tight. As in these comments the other day on the origin of consciousness:
Among your reservations, Chet, you say this: "Other supposed irreducible phenomena –- ESP, astrology, petitionary prayer, etc. -– when subjected to close empirical scrutiny, have failed the test of reproducible objectivity."

I might ask whether your criteria for truth testing is so narrow that it would leave out anything that does not fit our invented systems of abstraction and measure. Is great art or music "reproducible"? Is performed poetry or dance? Is it possible that there is more to human existence than what can be placed on a measurable grid! I think so. What? Well, let's find out.
I would answer: Yes, great art, music, poetry and dance is reproducible. You can find it reproduced all over the place. I have a CD of Chopin's Nocturnes here on my desk. You may have one too. I don't think anyone would deny that the Nocturnes are real, that they were written by Chopin, and that we can enjoy them today.

We do, of course, enjoy them in different ways, or perhaps not at all, depending on taste, culture, and the wiring of our brains. Why we enjoy music –- or the beauty of art in general -- remains an open question, like consciousness. As GJW says, let's find out. My default Ockhamist position is: Start with the evolution of the physical brain.

Now as for ESP, astrology and petitionary prayer -– there is no there there. Nothing that the believer and the skeptic can agree on. Nothing but anecdotal claims. Every test to identify some common something has failed (I refer you to Skeptics and True Believers or When God Is Gone for the details). It is the commonest of human failings to mistake coincidence for causality.

Is there more to human existence than can be placed on a measurable grid? Absolutely. I would hope and trust that this blog attests to that. One foot solidly on the grid; one foot awash in the sea of mystery.

More on the Nagel affair here.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What came first?

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Daybreak -- a Saturday reprise

(Back in New England and missing most of all the tropic skies. This post originally appeared in January 2008.)

I may have been in the last generation of youngsters who grew up with an awareness of the works of Maxfield Parrish. The children's' books he illustrated were still in circulation. Reproductions of his works appeared with some regularity in books and magazines meant for kids, and they were commonly framed for children's rooms. To me, they represented a fantasy world, a never-never land of make-believe. Those skies! The blues! The golds! The luminous mists! The billowing clouds like castles in the air! The unearthly light that sugarcoats trees and crags! Certainly, nothing like the skies I experienced in Chattanooga.

Seeing is partly stimulus and partly imagination. I know now, six decades later, that Maxfield Parrish help prepare my imagination to see the sky. As I write, I am looking out at a tropical sunrise that could have been lifted from one of his paintings. Clouds heaped like cotton candy, suffused with pink and gold, against a backdrop of Parrish blue. Is this why I came to the tropics, not just for the stars, but for those childhood fantasies of dawns and dusks?

I try never to be too far away from a copy of Marcel Minnaert's Light and Color in the Outdoors. Minnaert (1893-1970) was a Dutch astronomer who reveled in the magic of vision. His book first appeared in English in 1940; a new translation was prepared in 1993 to commemorate the centennial of the author's birth. It is a compendium of tricks of light and color in the natural world. Minnaert treats the colors of sea, sky, lakes, waterfalls, and puddles along the road. And treats they are: graces, revelations, great gusts of visual beauty blowing in the windows of the brain. For each luminous effect the author gives a scientific explanation.

And now, as I watch, the clouds rise and rise, changing color. The still-hidden Sun approaches the horizon, running through a Maxfield Parrish palette with its tricks of refraction and dispersion. Wake, wake, I whisper to my sleeping spouse, come look.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


It is a funny sort of life we have constructed for ourselves in retirement, like Gobi vagabonds, moving about every three months, following the seasons. Snow birds in the winter, heat birds in the summer, New Englanders in glorious spring and fall.

It suits me. It teases my taste for novelty. There's always the next place to look forward to -– new geography, new weather, new food, new friends. At age 70, Wallace Stevens wrote to a friend: "It's not that I grow tired but that my élan seems somewhat bent." That sums it up exactly. This moving about gives my élan a twist, bends it back into shape. At least for a few months.

And now it's that time again. Tomorrow and Friday in transit, to the New England spring and my cozy chair in the college library. Alas I leave without seeing Comet PANSTARRS. Here, in this place of splendid horizons and clear skies, the Western horizon at sunset has been cloudy or hazy for a week. But I have Comet ISON to look forward to, when the tilting Earth brings me back to Exuma.

Back in a few days.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Then to the elements be free

Be cheerful, Sir.
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on: and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Surely one of the most beautiful passages in all of dramatic literature, these lines of Prospero in Shakespeare's Tempest. They have a particular resonance with me because I was once involved in staging the "insubstantial pageant" and playing a part –- Ariel, that tricksy spirit.

And now the actual pageant fades. The actors –- friends and contemporaries -- are melting into thin air. Hardy a week goes by that word does not come of another acquaintance slipping away. A sadness, yes. But Prospero whispers, "Be cheerful, Sir." And then those tender lines, so sweet and reassuring: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep."

The sea. The air. The teeming creatures. Of dust and sunlight we are conjured up. A dream, each one of us, brief and fleeting and beautiful. Like flowers, like mayflies, like the Sun itself, we flourish and fade. No pageant without us. No cloud-capp'd towers, palaces or temples. We are the dream of the Earth. In us the Earth become self-aware, the universe becomes conscious.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Of tea and teapots

My friend Greg Shaw, the theologian, sent me this link to an article by Leon Wieseltier on the New Republic's website regarding Thomas Nagel's new book Mind and Cosmos. I haven't yet read the book (I grew up on the philosophy of a different Nagel), so let me confine my comments to Wieseltier's spirited defense, which to my mind is as feisty as the anti-Nagel "mob" he goes after.

This is just one skirmish in a war of words that has been raging in the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and other such places concerning books by Thomas Nagel, Alvin Plantinga, Ray Kurzweil, and others, on the nature of consciousness. At issue: Whether consciousness can be reduced to a material substrate. That is: Is consciousness ultimately reducible to electrochemical reactions of the physical brain?

I'm neither a philosopher nor a neurologist, just an ordinary spectator of these lively debates. To my mind, it's all a tempest in a teapot. Or at the very least, a premature tempest in a teapot. We're talking very tepid tea.

For all of the noise, no one yet has a serious clue what consciousness is or how it arises. The appropriate response is to say "I don't know, let's wait and see."

The absence of an explanation is not an explanation. Which it seems to me is what Nagel (a non-theist) and Plantinga (a theist) are proposing: Since the physical reductionists have so far failed to explain consciousness, it must be something else.

For the time being I will stick with the materialists for the following reasons:

1) The non-dualistic, reductionist paradigm has been stunningly successful. Countless phenomena that were once thought to be of supernatural or non-material origin -– comets, diseases, mystical visions, etc.— have been shown to have natural causes.

2) Other supposed irreducible phenomena –- ESP, astrology, petitionary prayer, etc. -– when subjected to close empirical scrutiny, have failed the test of reproducible objectivity.

3) I see apparent evidence of the evolution of consciousness all around me. The most conscious creatures seem invariably to be those with the most complex neural networks. Which powerfully suggests emergence.

4) Ockham's Razor: Do not multiple hypotheses until there is an necessary reason to do so.

The debate about consciousness could be resolved to my satisfaction in one of two ways:

1) The reductionists could create a conscious machine. (Good luck, Ray.)

2) The non-reductionists could come up with a theoretical paradigm that has real, reproducible explanatory power, something as empirically persuasive as atomism, the germ theory of disease, or natural selection.

In the meantime, I will keep reading the NYRB, TLS, and even occasionally the National Review, with a mind that is ajar, and sipping my tepid tea.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Vile bodies, immortal souls –- a Saturday reprise

(While we're on the subject of literary women, this post originally appeared in August 2007.)

On the 29th of December, 1836, Charlotte Bronte, twenty years old, posted some of her poems to the Poet Laureate of England Robert Southey, hoping for encouragement. Three months later, the great man replied, putting the "flighty" girl in her place: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation." Charlotte was not dissuaded from her art. Try googling "Charlotte Bronte" and "Robert Southey" and you will see what relative places the two poets found in history.

Charlotte, with her sisters Emily and Anne, overcame greater obstacles than a pompous Poet Laureate. Think what these three young women contributed to literature: Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne) -- and that just for starters. Three daughters of an impecunious clergyman in a remote Yorkshire village where the average age of death was twenty-five.

They were three of six children. Their older sisters Maria and Elizabeth were perhaps equally talented but -- as we shall see -- died young. A brother, Branwell, was certainly gifted, but frittered his life away with drink and opium. The children were precocious, and in their dismal isolation developed a rich fantasy life, to which all contributed.

Before they were ten years of age, the girls (save Anne, the youngest) were enrolled in a charity school for the daughters of poor clergymen, founded by William Carus Wilson, the Vicar of Tunstall. It was Wilson's view that the bodies of girls (intrinsically sinful) should be chastised for the good of their immortal souls. The school was cold and damp, the sanitation meager, the food inedible. The girls were birched and humiliated, their hair shorn. Thus they were encouraged to turn away from vile nature and put their face towards Paradise. Maria and Elizabeth did not long endure the horrific regimen. They died of consumption (tuberculosis) at the ages of eleven and ten respectively. Emily and Anne would also die of the same wasting disease, but not before they had written their great works.

There is a scene in Jane Eyre where the founder of Jane's school, the Reverend Brocklehurst, objects to a girl's curls. The child's hair curls naturally, says Miss Temple, the school's superintendent. "Naturally!" exclaims the clergyman. "Yes but we are not to conform to nature: I wish these girls to be the children of Grace." Brocklehurst's perverse theology was not untypical of his time: This world of pain and travail is but a temporary lodging on the way to heaven; bodies must be subdued that the soul might flourish. Maria, at least, bought into the story. As she lay dying she told Charlotte, "God wants only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward."

Karl Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the working class. Branwell managed to get hold of real opium; Maria chose religion. And it must be said that religion in Victorian England served class structure. The children of the poor, especially girls, were taught that their misery was deserved, and that by suppressing their individuality to serve the gentry now they would be recompensed in the afterlife. What is at issue is the age-old distinction between nature and supernature, body and soul, here being used as a birch to beat the poor into submission.

As long as the world was thought to exist as matter and spirit, matter was certain to draw the short straw. The pernicious dualism of Victorian evangelical religion was countered only by science, which began its modern advance when it turned its back on the supernatural. The essential task of empirical science is to discover knowledge that conforms to nature -- turning Reverend Brocklehurst's sorry dictum on its ear. Charlotte Bronte, as a novelist, sought to do the same. She was determined that her stories not conform to the upperclass fancy-dress fantasies of the time, but would rather describe nature as she observed it with a hard, unsparing eye. As her biographer Lyndall Gordon notes, nature alone was her friend.

Charles Darwin, no revolutionary, did more to overturn the oppressing dualism of supernaturalist religion than anyone, by showing that human nature is animal nature. Whatever the human soul is, it is not something pressed divinely and temporarily into matter, but is rather part and parcel of the natural world. As an agnostic, he did not have the opium of immortality to console him when his own beloved daughter Annie died of consumption at the age of ten. Darwin's friend Thomas Huxley (who invented the term agnostic) also bore the deaths of beloved children without the consolations of the supernatural. Still, he found the courage to endure and prevail. He said that if a man stays true to the agnostic principle, with humility, as best he could, "he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him." As a social reformer, Huxley did more for the economically disadvantaged than all the pious Brocklehursts in Britain.

The Bronte women were put upon by a religion, a class system and a patriarchy that sought to define a woman's nature without bothering to look at nature itself. Charlotte, Emily and Anne looked into their own hearts and minds to decide what nature was, and helped create the conditions in which women could emerge from the shadows of religious self-abnegation and domestic servitude. Their ally was nature. Their triumph inspiring.

Friday, March 15, 2013

On a windswept shore

OK, I know you are getting bored with Margaret Fuller, whose biography I have just read. But there is one other episode from the end of the book that sticks in my mind, involving my long-time mentor Henry David Thoreau.

I have read pretty much everything written about Thoreau, and nearly everything he wrote himself (not all, I suppose, of his voluminous journals). I am ashamed to say I knew very little about his acquaintance Margaret Fuller. I didn't even mention her when I wrote about "the flowering of New England" in an earlier post.

But Thoreau, although seven years younger, would have been very much aware of Fuller, as was Emerson, that demigod of the New England "enlightenment." Emerson, I suspect, was to the very end awed and jealous of her intellect and courage.

And "the end"; what was it?

All during her young adulthood, Fuller had crushes on many of her brilliant male friends. They admired her, and enjoyed her company, but only in a Platonic way. She tended to be smarter than they. And not "pretty." They married less bright, more beautiful woman.

In 1846, at age 36, Fuller went to Europe on assignment for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, where she would end up covering the revolutionary events of the late 1840s, including breathlessly and dangerously the siege of republican Rome. She also fell in love with a gentle, non-intellectual Italian ten years her junior (and he with her), and conceived a child out of wedlock. They married, or at least pretended to be, and after Rome was restored to reactionary rule, Fuller, with her lover and child, set sail for America.

Their ship ran aground off Fire Island, on Long Island. The bodies of Margaret and her husband Giovanni were never found. The child perished too and is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But all of that is by way of leading up to Thoreau, who Emerson sent to Fire Island to recover whatever scraps of Fuller's life might be found among the wreckage that washed ashore. It was an episode I had not previously considered -– the "hermit of Walden" scouring that desolate shore for fragments of a great life.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tread softly…

One last brief episode from Megan Marshall's biography of Margaret Fuller.

In 1843, a few years before Thoreau began his sojourn in the woods at Walden, Fuller took a summer-long journey to the Midwestern frontier, travelling by steamboat on the Great Lakes, wagon, and canoe, sometimes on her own, sometimes with friends. She became very much concerned with the plight of Native Americans, who were being displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for the farms and cities of Europeans. This was all of a piece with her feminist, anti-poverty, and abolitionist views. Marshall writes:
At every turn she found these strands intertwined -– creation and destruction, creation out of destruction. Margaret had looked forward to viewing stands of virgin forest in the Michigan woods, but when the ferry docked at the Manitou Islands to refuel, she found instead crews of Indians at work chopping down "real old monarch trees" to "glut the steamboat" and feed its fires. She was horrified by the Indians' role, perforce, in defacing their wilderness. The "rudeness of conquest" necessary to support "the needs of the day" was ""scare less wanton than that of warlike invasion." Who could possibly "make amends to nature for the present violation of her majestic charms."
Who indeed?

I see the wanton destruction of the immense natural beauty of this island –- the leveling of dunes, the death of coral reefs, the diminution or extinction of native flora and fauna -– to build condos and playgrounds for wealthy Americans and Canadians, who wantonly participate in destroying the very things they presumably come to experience. But of course I am part of it. And it didn't begin with me. It started when the lookout on the Pinta spotted these unspoiled shores. Or even before when the first Native Americans arrived.

Thus the paradox of conservation. The "rudeness of conquest" to satisfy "the needs of the day." We are all of us caught up in it to one degree or another, even Margaret Fuller who was a paid passenger aboard the steamboat, travelling to broaden her experience and satisfy her curiosity. I despair of resolving the conflict in my own life. May each one of you who visit here be more successful.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Plus ça change…

As I mentioned yesterday, Margaret Fuller was barred from the ministry by her sex. In practice, she was also kept from the lecture circuit; who was going to pay to listen to a woman? Even with her exceptional intelligence, philosophical turn of mind, and wide learning, the only paying career open to her was the teaching of children. Which she did.

But she longed to interact with adults. So she hit upon the idea of a weekly series of "Conversations" for women, many of them married, who would attend by subscription. Fuller would throw out a topic, from among the "great ideas," then encourage the participants to formulate and express their own thoughts, something most had never been inspired to do before.

On the evidence presented by Fuller's biographer, Megan Marshall, the experiment was a success, satisfying and empowering for the participants. Emboldened by the quality of discussion, Fuller decided to open the next series of Conversations to the men among her many transcendentalist friends, including Emerson.

Uh oh, you can guess the results.

The women were reduced to silence as the men one by one took the floor and held it, each one asserting his firm opinions. Conversation was replaced by declamation. Emerson, in particular, seemed determined to outshine the moderator. Fuller was abashed and dismayed.

The experience buttressed her vibrant feminism. Her book on the subject, Women in the Nineteenth Century, was as provocative in its time as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was in ours.

(A wonderfully slender Moon last evening through a hole in the clouds, but no comet. Will keep trying.)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Reading Megan Marshall's new biography of Margaret Fuller, the New England transcendentalist of the early 19th century, friend and confident of Emerson and his coterie of radical freethinkers, and I'm thinking: "Nothing's changed. Here it is almost two centuries later and we are having the same discussions."

Of course, some things have changed, not least because of the efforts of Fuller, Emerson, and the rest. Their contemporary, the feisty Universalist preacher Abner Kneeland, spent sixty days in jail for suggesting in his own newspaper that God was "nature itself" and any other deity was "nothing more than a chimera." He was locked up for his political views –- women should be allowed their own bank accounts, for example –- as well as his pantheism. Margaret Fuller, who wouldn’t have minded being a preacher herself, was barred from the pulpit by her sex. From Harvard too.

So all that has changed. Today one can safely be an outspoken feminist atheist Harvard-grad, at least in New England. Just don't plan on running for office in a red state.

But the content of the discussions has not changed much. In 1838, Emerson exhorted the Harvard Divinity School graduating class to trust "intuition" over archaic representations of God, and urged that religion be "one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy." He was not invited back for thirty years.

So if the discussion isn't going anywhere, why continue? Why? Because the world can still use an occasional dollop of science, beauty and joy. And some of us believe that dollop by dollop the world of human relations is getting incrementally better.

More inclusive, more liberal, more progressive. Dollop by dollop by dollop.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Well, hello!

We have two regular visitors to our screened porch, two brown geckoes, each about three inches long. Stripey is slender, with a long wispy tail and a white stripe down his back. Stumpy is plumper, no stripe, with a truncated tail. They come and go through the crack under the screen door. Dinner is outside. I do believe they come in for the company.

Certainly they are friendly enough. They don't seem the least put off by our presence. They scout around in their stop-and-go fashion, their dewlaps flagging. Stripey likes to climb. He will jump onto my finger if I try to touch him, then leap away like a Flying Wallenda. Stumpy seems more the philosopher, content to ponder. They have nothing to do with each other.

They are welcome into the house, but seem content with the porch. I'd like to introduce them to the ants on the kitchen counter, although I am not sure why I have more antipathy for ants than geckoes. Personality, I assume. There's something about those big, lidless geckos eyes that say, "Love me and I'll love you back."

Did I say "personality"? Yes, exactly. The very fact that we have given Stripey and Stumpy names, that they are uniquely recognizable, is the reason we welcome them. They have an incipient personhood, unique identities. Every ant is -– for all practical purposes –- the same. I can't imagine naming an ant.

Here is Ursula Goodenough on personhood:
I start with my egg cell, one of 400,000 in my mother's ovaries. It meets with one of the hundreds of millions of sperm cells produced each day by my father. Astonishing that I happen at all, truly astonishing. And then I cleave, I gastrulate, I implant, I grow tiny fetal kidneys and a tiny heart. The genes of my father and the genes of my mother switch on and off and on again in all sorts of combinations, all sorts of chords and tempos, to create something both eminently human and eminently new. Once I am born, my unfinished brain slowly completes it maturation in the context of my unfolding experience, and during my quest to understand what it is to be a person, I come to understand that there can be but one me.
Stripey and Stumpy have crossed a threshold, barely perhaps, of manifesting uniqueness. We recognize something in them that we recognize in ourselves, one of the greatest mysteries of life -- the budding emergence of a self.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Work of the heart -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in May 2007.)

In 1914, at age 39, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a substantial body of published work behind him. "Work of sight is achieved," he wrote; "now for some heart work."

That's more or less what I have been doing on this site for the past three years: heart work. For seventy years it was sight work: looking, reading, teaching, writing books. Now I'm more interested in trying to discern the contours of the journey, the shape of the landscape I have traversed. How did the things seen fit together? How did the fit determine what things were seen? Heart work.

It's a pleasant task, and these daily posts are part of it. It is, as you have suggested, the sort of work that takes place on the porch of life. I imagine a broad summer verandah, perhaps in the south, with cicadas singing and constellations of fireflies mimicking the stars. A pink moon rising in the east. From afar off, the flicker of heat lightnin'.

In Letters To A Young Poet, Rilke advises: "Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
Good advice, and I would like to think that now is that time far in the future when whatever answers might be found will reveal themselves. But they will come, I am sure -- if they come at all -- in solitude and silence. A meteor streaks the mirroring sky. An alignment of planets in the west. Listen! A whisper. A calling into the thick of things.

Friday, March 08, 2013

WWHD? (What would Harry do?)

I have been reading David McCullough's massive Pulitzer-prizewinning biography of Harry Truman. The first third, about the future president's childhood and young adulthood in western Missouri is a bit of a slog. Not much excitement; not much that would hint at future greatness, a story not of big events but of character, family, earthy virtues. Harry, the farmer; Harry the soldier with thick eyeglasses, who discovers he is braver than he thought he was; Harry, the failed haberdasher.

Then, in the middle third of the book, two great currents combine into a tsunami of historic proportions: one scientific, one political. A bunch of brilliant geeks figure out how to harness the power of E=mc2; and a couple of psychopaths have designs on ruling the world.

Through a large measure of happenstance, Truman finds himself at the focus where these two great currents come together. He is nearly overwhelmed by the force of events, but grit, humility and common sense triumph over looming Armageddon.

This is the period when I came of age, in the sense of being aware and reflective on the course of human events. Growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we knew something dramatic was going on at Oak Ridge, but had no idea what (that’s a bit of the story Dan and I tell in Chattanooga). The news of the atomic bomb was the defining punctuation of my childhood.

My first school science project was a model of the atom, made with wires and colored beads. Then for years I and my schoolmates lived under the terrible shadow of that model and what it represented –- the moral ambivalence of knowledge.

McCullough, of course, gives due attention to the debates over using the bomb on Japanese cities. He recounts a poignant episode after the war when Robert Oppenheimer ("the father of the bomb") came to see Truman at the White House, agitated that he –- Oppenheimer -- had blood on his hands because of his work on the bomb. Truman found the physicist's self-pitying "cry-baby" attitude abhorrent. "The blood is on my hands," he told Oppenheimer. "Let me worry about that." He hoped he would never see the man again. Later, however, when other voices argued for the use of atomic weapons in the Korean conflict, Truman held firm against and set a precedent that endured.

All knowledge has potential use for good or evil. The only application I am aware of for my doctoral thesis research –- this long after the fact –- had something to do with making missiles less vulnerable to defense. Did my four happy years in the university physics lab serve for nothing but killing a few women and children in some faraway land? I don't know. I do believe that knowledge is better than ignorance. I'm glad I didn't have to confront any moral dilemmas while I was gleefully ensconced in that dark lab elucidating the reflective properties of molybdenum films.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Breathing in a foreign clime

Ah! A moss piglet!

Yes, as good a portrait as I have seen. A color enhanced electron micrograph of a tardigrade. The Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). (Click to enlarge.)

Tardigrades ("slow walkers") are as weird a creature as you are likely to find on the planet. They are about a millimeter long –- about half the size of this letter i without the dot. Four stumpy pairs of legs. Male and female, although not with a terribly romantic sex life. Only 40,000 cells. That's it. Behind that smushed in snout there is a brain, such as it is. Such as it needs to be.

Looks like something invented by Beatrix Potter. Moss piglets, they are called. Or water bears. Undeniably cute in their baggy brown suits. I told a biologist friend once I'd like to see one in the flesh. She showed up later with a bottle containing a few ounces of water, some algae, assorted microscopic organisms, and -- wonder of wonders! -- tardigrades. Bliss! Playing like otters in the eyepiece of my scope. They look remarkably like vertebrates of some sort, but they have no bony skeleton. They are invertebrates, related to insects, but so unique they have a phylum all of their own.

Tardigrades do not interest scientists only because they are cute. They are also among the hardiest of multi-celled animals, maybe the toughest animals of all. Dry them out and they go into a state of suspended animation in which they can live for -- well, no one knows. When some apparently-lifeless, 120-year-old moss from an Italian museum was moistened, tardigrades rose as if from the dead and scampered about.

Maura (if by any chance you see this), it is not the only time you have satisfied my curiosity with a gift of life. I remember mutant fruit flies and slime molds and more. And you lent me too a good biology department dissecting microscope to go exploring. I remember something Darwin wrote in Voyage of the Beagle: "Every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness, from the simple consciousness of breathing in a foreign clime, where the civilized man has seldom or never trod." I found my foreign clime on the stage of the microscope.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The perils of anthropomorphism

When I was a kid one of the most popular shows on the radio (and later television) was Twenty Questions. Twenty questions to guess the secret thing: animal, vegetable, or mineral. As I recall, the first question was often "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

I can't remember the last time I saw a breadbox. I just looked at an episode of the show on YouTube and it seems as long ago and far away as breadboxes. Nevertheless, I was thinking "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" when I was watching the ant in yesterday's post.

It would take a lot of those ants to fill a breadbox, more than 100 million by my rough calculation. One human baby would do the trick. The volume of a breadbox is within the same order of magnitude as a human, more or less half way between the largest and smallest things we know about. More than 10 billion billion breadboxes to fill the oceans outside my window.

So here we are suspended in a universe between the very big and the very small, allowed to ask an unlimited number of questions to figure out what it is. Whether our "midway" position is a limitation of our perceptions or the perspicacity of our questions, we may never know. What we do know is that the furthest bounds of knowledge are wreathed in shadow.

Is our big bang (assuming it withstands further scrutiny) merely a bubble in an infinite and eternal froth of universes? Are the quarks not nearly as "elementary" as we suppose them to be? I don't know. You don't know. It behooves us to ponder now and then how many ants fit in a breadbox, and how many breadboxes fit in the sea, stretching our imaginations away from the ancient and natural tendency to see ourselves reflected at each end of the spectrum, breadboxes all the way up and all the way down.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Table talk – 4

Stick with bats and boas, says Margaret.

And indeed there are plenty of bats and boas in this blog.

But I don't need anything as exotic as a bat or boa. Take this ant that is crawling across the table. So tiny I couldn't tell it's a creature if it weren't moving. With my x10 magnifier it is manifestly creaturely. Legs. Antennae. And all the rest that I know is there; sensory apparatus, nervous system, mouth, digestive system, anus. Fully animated. In a package almost as small as this period.

Have you ever seen Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson's Ants, that big doorstop of a book, everything formic? I had a copy once, a pre-publication review copy. I spent a happy week in that teeming formicary. By the end of the week I knew as much about ants as a curious person might wish to know. And yet now, just now, as I track the ant with my magnifier, my inclination is to shout "hallelujah," to compose a litany of praise, to offer up a prayer of thanks (to whom? or what? it doesn't matter). 746 pages of naturalism (thanks Bert and Ed!) and my inclination is to fall to my knees mumbling something like Deo gratias.

And that's were the "religious" kicks in. I don't need the Deo for the gratias. When we were kids, we practiced something called "adoration of the Blessed Sacrament." The consecrated Eucharist was displayed in a sunburst monstrance in the darkened church –- the body of Christ, God incarnate -– and we were taught to cultivate a sense of awe, thanksgiving, praise. It was a lesson I see no reason to jettison, although now I am more inclined to "adoration" of the living ant than a piece of bread.

Awe, thanksgiving, praise: Why not? Naturalism vastly illuminates the ant, those 746 pages of science. And vastly increases my sense that every living thing -– bat, boa, ant -– is a natural monstrance, radiantly worthy of a response that might cautiously be called "religious."

Monday, March 04, 2013

Table talk – 3

Religions appear to be almost universal. They traditionally serve at least three deeply felt human needs. 1) They provide a story for why things are as they are: Where did the world come from? Why are we here? What happens to us when we die? 2) They provide a language and a context for what we might call our spiritual lives: a personal response to a perceived mystery that transcends and vivifies our collective stories. 3) In rites and ritual, they bind us into a community of celebration, petition and praise.

The first of these needs has been subsumed by science. The scientific stories have proven themselves far more resilient and intellectually satisfying than the myths (as we now call them) that satisfied our ancestors. In so far as the scientific story of creation leaves some questions unanswered -– what preceded the big bang? how did life begin? etc. -– the naturalist is content to say (for the time being) "I don't know." The discovery of ignorance is one of the greatest gifts of science.

Even what we do know, or think we know, is enveloped in an aura of mystery. I have often used the metaphor –- not unique to me -– of knowledge as an island in an infinite sea of mystery: as the island grows, so does the shoreline where we encounter mystery. I would make a distinction between "mystery" and "ignorance"; ignorance we can chip away at, mystery abides even in what we know. Margaret objects to my using the language of traditional religion to describe the encounter with mystery –- "grace," for instance, or "prayer," or "sacred," or "sacrament." I make no apology. Science provides a language of knowing; traditional religion, stripped of supernaturalism and anthropomorphism, can provides a useful language for the shore.

We are communal creatures. We are sustained by shared experience. I can no longer recite the Creed, or in honesty partake of the Eucharist, but I'm not willing to turn my back on where I've been. I have lived most of my life within a Roman Catholic milieu; I am happy to draw from that context whatever gifts of language, fellowship and wisdom are consistent with a rigorous naturalism.

So for these reasons, Margaret, I append "religious" to "naturalism." This does not, I think, weaken my commitment to the naturalist paradigm; rather it affirms an openness to an experience of the natural world that is broader and richer than what I find each week in the pages of Science or Nature. It is the "gee!" and "wow!" of the "what."

One last comment tomorrow.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Cisco's dream

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Wonder and humility -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in December 2008. Table talk continues Monday.)

My generation is the last who will remember these old Mobil gas pumps with the round glass globes on top and the sign of the Flying Horse. Or, for that matter, the two-lane blacktops that threaded their way across America in the days before the Interstates. Here we see them in Edward Hopper's 1940 painting titled, simply, Gas. Click to enlarge.

So much of Hopper's work evokes solitude and loneliness -- somber loners in spare hotel rooms, store fronts on deserted streets, Victorian houses on desolate hills. Gas, too, captures a moment of isolation. A filling station on a road to who-knows-where, the attendant -- that 1940's tie and vest! -- shutting down the pumps for the night. Soon he will flick off the station lights, casting the road and the trees across the road into darkness. The ellipsis of the three white globes at the top of the pumps points down the road into unlit possibilities, like a declarative sentence suddenly suspended in ambiguity.

Technology superimposed on uncertainty. Light pours out the station door; the road plunges into darkness. Of all of Hopper's paintings, this is the one that stays with me. Not only because it captures a seductive moment in my own life, but as a metaphor for the uneasy equilibrium between technology and nature that characterizes our time.

To the right of the road, the warm security of civilization. To the left of the road, beyond the verge, unsullied nature, wild, free, but frightening too. Who is willing to walk at into those woods at night, to forego the benefits of artificial light, to risk the forest primeval?

We can't live without the Flying Horse and all it represents, but part of us remains attached to the organicity out of which we came. I think of something Hopper said about the future of art and the lure of abstraction: "There will be, I think, an attempt to grasp again the surprise and accidents of nature, and a more intimate and sympathetic study of its moods, together with a renewed wonder and humility on the part of such as are still capable of these basic reactions."

Friday, March 01, 2013

Table talk -- 2

Religious naturalism? Let's start with the easy part: "naturalism." The part Margaret will agree on.

There are no miracles. No supernatural interventions. Whatever happens happens because of potentialities in nature itself. To the extent those potentialities are known, we call them laws of nature. The laws of nature as we know them are not inviolable, but that is presumably because we do not yet fully understand.

The naturalistic assumption is not something the naturalist can prove, but it has served us remarkably well as a foundational principle of science. If it were not true, at least in the broad sweep of things, science would not be possible. It has led us to the most distant galaxies and into the heart of the DNA. It has made modern medicine and technological civilization possible.

One irrefutable miracle would be all it would take to render the naturalistic assumption wanting. But here is why I am a naturalist: In seven decades of study and personal experience, I have yet to come across a shred of reliable, non-anecdotal evidence for exceptions to the rule of natural law.

Millions of Hindus pray for sons, for example. And millions think their prayers have been answered. But the ratio of boy babies to girl babies is the same as anywhere else. Your answered prayer, your miracle, is my coincidence.

I have no desire to argue the naturalistic assumption with my neighbor. To each his own, as long as his own doesn't impinge on mine.

But I can still hear Margaret saying, "Jeez, Dad, there you go again. Let it go. Get back to bats and boas. It’s a dead horse." And indeed it is, for me and for Margaret. "Religion" as a commonly understood noun is replete with supernaturalism, to be stripped away with one clean swipe of Ockham's razor. But what about "religious" as an adjective? Does "naturalism" need a qualifier? That's the challenge she has posed that I feel compelled to answer.

More Monday.