Tuesday, August 30, 2005

I Took A Trip....

My friend Mark is getting married next month (it's all the rage these days--all the cool kids are doing it), and I attended his bachelor party this past weekend. Mark is a guy's guy in all of the good ways and none of the bad ones--he's a craftsman, knows how to use tools; he's resourceful, a little bit crazy, and full of love. His bachelor party consisted driving out to central Washington, near Leavenworth, and spending the weekend camping out on a plot of undeveloped land owned by one of his friends.

We left Seattle about 8:00 pm on Friday night, and made it out to the site about 11, where the main activity of the weekend--preparing, roasting, and eating a whole pig--was already well underway. The pig was stuffed, sewn up, and placed on a smoker that had been fashioned out of an oil drum, and the bachelor-celebrants stayed up in shifts during the night tending the fire. In the meantime I pitched a tent out in the middle of the property and slept for a few hours under stars that, being that we were hours from any major metropolitan area, you could actually see.

I'm an ostensible pescitarian--I cut beef out of my diet after, in college, a friend convinced me that it was the devil in meat form. I later decided the same thing about chicken, and eventually cut out all land-roving animals. I'm not grossed out by meat and I don't object to killing animals for food--yet another cursory observation of nature seems to reveal that eating other animals is about as natural a thing as there is. At this point I don't eat the land rovers because I think we're too far removed from the fact that we're eating another living thing. The animals we're fed are penned up and slaughtered out of our view, pre-processed and packaged and delivered to us in a box with nice pictures on the front. All of the viscera and ugliness of nature, red in tooth and claw, is neatly disposed of. I've kept fish in my diet on the reasoning that I've actually, in my life, caught, killed, and eaten them. In general I believe that if you are farming or hunting your own meat, you're eating a diet that's a lot more moral than mine. All of that is a round about introduction to the fact that my objections to eating meat didn't really apply to the pig we roasted this weekend--one of Mark's friends bought it from a small farm, and they cooked and ate it whole. But I still couldn't bring myself to eat it--I don't quite know why. I brought some salmon and veggie burgers with me and grilled them while my compatriots, after roasting it for 16 straight hours, ate what was apparently the best pork in the history of time.

So anyway, I hung out in a field with a bunch of bachelors whom, apart from Mark, I really didn't know. And they all, without exception, turned out to be the best kind of guy's guys--handy with tools and full of love. Over the weekend, we cleared some brush and dug out some stumps, threw the football around, went swimming in a river, and sat in the shade drinking beer and collectively working on the cryptic crossword in the back of Harper's Magazine (and really, what's more manly than that?). Driving home on Sunday evening it struck me that it had been a really honest kind of weekend. I guess the purpose of a bachelor party is to enjoy the freedom you had as a single man, and this gathering was about that only in so far as it wasn't about that at all--we'll probably be back out to camp some more in October. I don't know that we broke any new ground on what it means to be a man and to be okay with the fact that hegemony works in your favor. Instead we all spent two and a half days without indoor plumbing, or indoor anything, and we were okay with that. And we had a really good time doing it.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Things Mean A Lot

I don't know who you are, but it's extremely unlikely that you read this blog and don't also read the two blogs linked at the right. If not, well, why aren't you reading the two blogs linked at the right? What on earth is wrong with you? We're all having a fine little blogging career meta-blogging about each others blogs, and you're missing it.

Well, okay, whatever. Just this, and then I'm done with all the intra-blogspot incestuous posting for the moment. Over at Second Americano, Sam has an entry he's aptly titled, "That One Thing." It's about, he claims, what is really the only idea he's ever had. He phrases it thus (again, paraphrasing, because some times it's nice to have your work done for you): "Language is not a tool for use by humans; rather, language is that upon which human existence depends and that in which it flourishes." Language makes us human; it's Sam's statement of, "I think, therefore I am." It is not, as we might want to interpret it, that thinking (or talking) proves that we exist, it's the opposite. Thinking (or talking) is the necessary and sufficient condition for existence (or humanness).

I think there really is only one thing. I, last week, have been framing it as a discussion about evolution. Down the road at Stonesthrow, Greg is talking about it from the perspective of The Enlightenment. Sam and Rebecca have pretty much created entire careers out of it. I don't quite know what "it" is, but I think every now and then when we step out of our normal perspective, we see it. It's like a koan--an instant of confusion and ridiculousness that gives us just an instant where we glimpse enlightenment.

We live in a universe where it's been proven that any model that you can come up with, any axiomatic system that describes reality, is guaranteed to fail at some level--eventually you'll run into something that's true or false in your system but that can't be proved therein. You might believe that it was Godel who proved this, or you might believe it was Nietzsche, or Epimenides, or perhaps Lao Tzu (depending, not ironically at all, upon which axiomatic system you prefer). It doesn't really matter. The point is, true revelation, and true genius, comes from stepping out of the model for a moment. Godel's proof of his theorem is a brilliant little moment of meta-, where he creates a statement that talks about his axiomatic system from his original axioms. That stepping out was his moment of enlightenment, just as the revelation of language was Sam's, just as last week understanding that intelligence is born out of an attempt to create a narrative was mine. The only problem is, when we all stepped into the light, we wanted to come back and talk about it, and as soon as we did (remember Sam's thesis), we created a new axiomatic system, which is again incomplete. It's the Tao: we've seen the Tao, but as soon as we talk about it, it's no longer the Tao.

It's the One Thing: a mathematician will come back and talk about it in terms of mathematics, a philosopher in terms of philosophy, a crazy freak-from-hell blogger will talk about it in ways you simply don't understand, and so on, because that's the model he or she works with. But it's still the One Thing.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Anthropic Principle

I just now did a Google Search in order to find a reasonable explanation of the anthropic principle to which I could link in the post below. I was initially a little flummoxed, because the first seven or eight results on the page were all somehow Bible related, and seemed to claim that the anthropic principle somehow proved the existence of (the Christian) God. "What's this?" thought I. "Have the Christians learned the art of the Google Bomb?"

In fact no, it was Ockham's Razor at work again: I had accidentally searched Google for the anthropic principal.

Inevitable Sequel to the Inevitable Entry About Evolution

One of the problems with blogs is the immediate obsolescence: each new entry demotes the previous entries, such that if the reader comes in during the middle of a continuing narrative, the first chapters appear under the later ones and the thread is lost.

Calvino: That is a problem. If only you knew someone who was in any way computer savvy and could figure out a way to link blog entries together in a linear way on a web page.

The Stoat: The problems of narrative have occupied scholars and intellectuals for millennia. They cannot be solved by mere cascading style sheets.

If you have not read the almost previous entry, click or scroll down and pick up on the thread. Then come back. I'll wait...do dee do...la la la...twiddle twiddle. Okay. When we last left our dialog, we were wondering what we were missing when our debate about evolution was framed around whether God was guiding the process or not. Reduced to a debate between intelligent designers and...um...people not so a priori constrained by a particular notion of the creator, arguing God in and out of the debate is like arguing whether, going back to the market analogy, The Invisible Hand of Capitalism exists. It exists if you use Adam Smith's Wealth Of Nations model. If you don't, it doesn't (and jeez, have you noticed how much harm gets done to humanity because of people acting in their own economic self-interest? I'm not angry, I'm just sayin'...). You could argue about its existence, but you're kind of missing the point.

A kinder summary of the Intelligent Design argument against evolution is the "what good is half an eye?" question. The example I've seen given is the complement system of the human immune response, a collection of 20-odd proteins which attack invading pathogens in combination. Separately, they're immunologically useless, but together they form the body's first line of defense. The question, from an evolution perspective, is how this would evolve. Since an organism would derive no real assistance surviving from having just one or two proteins, there's no apparent evolutionary path to an organism with the full complement that we observe now. That's not to say there isn't an explanation in the evolutionary model, we just don't have one yet (see the link above). On the one hand it's difficult to look at the amazingly unbelievably complex organic machines that we are and not see it as the result of some plan. On the other, as we say here at The Odds Are One, your perspective is a little unreliable because you are that unbelievably complex organic machine. The problem with any model where God created you in His image is that the most cursory examination of the history of creation reveals that life just keeps adapting and/or getting more complex, so there's no good reason to believe it's going to stop with you (no knock against you. You are a fabulous example of organic machinery. Yes you are).

And that's the rub: from the perspective of an outside observer, it looks an awful lot like nature is learning. It doesn't seem that way to us because nature operates on a time scale that we can't fathom. But if we could, and we were watching a small child presiding over the same task we'd immediately acknowledge it as the actions of an intelligent being. Evolution really is the million monkeys typing endlessly on the million keyboards, with one of them eventually accidentally writing Hamlet. The only problem with that analogy is that, in the case of nature, when that millionth monkey types "To be or not to be," somebody is standing right there to grab the manuscript, make copies, distribute them to the million monkeys, and suddenly where before all they could do was pound on the keys, suddenly now they're all making edits to the First Quarto. You could attribute this editorial decision making to god, but nobody out there seems to be doing it--the Intelligent Designers, e.g., would have to acknowledge that God didn't really know what the fuck he was doing and and was in fact a second rate hack plagiarising someone else's work. Anyway, a better explanation seems to be that this property--the ability of nature to editorially recognize genius--was innate from the beginning of the experiment.

So what about that? You could fall back on the weak anthropic principle--we're inarguably here, so the initial conditions of the universe must be such that life could evolve the way it has--but you're still dodging the interesting question: how come those initial conditions create a system that looks like it's behaving intelligently? If you've been reading closely, you already know one answer to this question: it just looks that way to us because we're looking at it from the perspective of beings who are, right at the moment, the end result of this experiment. That's a fine answer, but it brings us to another problem: if this huge jumble of randomness can look like the results of an intelligently guided experiment, what does that tell us about our own human intelligence? We organic machines achieved a certain level of complexity and apparently somewhere along the line achieved consciousness and what we think of as intelligence. But if intelligence is just an attempt to make narrative out of chaos, what have we really got?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

What We Talk About When We Talk About God

There's a sequel to my previous evolution post in the pipeline, but while it's percolating in the remote reaches of my small brain, I thought it might be good to define some of the more volatile words I've tossing around with reckless abandon. This so-called "god" fellow I keep referencing is the first one I'd like to talk about.

Calvino: Yes, let's do talk about that. I can't help but notice that little collection of bon mots at the end about life and god that you blithely tossed in at the end of your post without comment. You always do that.

The Stoat: Do what?

Calvino: Bring up huge, sweeping issues at the very end of your posts and then never actually ever address them.

The Stoat: Oh, that.

Calvino: ...Well...?

The Stoat: You can't expect me to just spoon-feed you everything. You have to reason it out for yourself. I never said I would just give you the answers.

Calvino: Yes, you did. Repeatedly.

The Stoat: Ah. Yes, yes I did. Me. Okay then.

I was raised in a Catholic household, and try as I might I have a pretty negative view of said religion in general, so among other things the word "god" has a lot of pretty unshakeable connotations for me. On the other hand, I married a Jew and it is so far my experience that Jews are incredibly warm and caring people, and their deity is theoretically the same guy, so it's possible that my inborn biases need a little examination.

Suffice it to say I'm not talking about the anthropomorphic deity when I use the word "god." To me a rational view of the universe doesn't support an omniscient omnipotent bearded super-being intervening with greater purpose in every human life. I say this knowing there are people out there who have had life experiences that they feel directly contradict this point of view, and to them I can only say that I believe that they truly have had these experiences. I think there's room for the seemingly contradictory realities, it just depends on the model of the universe/reality/whatever one applies.

These days when I use the word god I'm generally thinking of a pretty ill-formed concept, something about the collective conscious or unconscious, something about the underlying governing principals of physics and cosmological constants and whatever it is that makes atoms form and makes those atoms form proteins and those proteins to form mechanisms whose chief goal is to survive long enough to reproduce themselves and, if there's time along the way after they've eaten and fucked, also to learn about themselves and the universe they're in. That's what god is in my model of the universe and metaphysics. I'm not saying it's a good model--it violates Ockham's Razor insofar as the model where god is a guy with a white beard is a lot simpler. And, for that matter, the model of collective-unconscious-god model has just as many testable hypotheses as white-beard-god model. That is to say, none.

These days I like to tell myself that the primary feature of the mental-chunkings with which I come to grips with all that I observe is that I know fuck-all, my model could be utterly wrong and should not be clung to in the face of contradictory evidence--otherwise one winds up with Intelligent Design or Neo-Conservatism. At the same time, well, I've just out of hand rejected Intelligent Design and Neo-Conservatism--models of the world that seem to me (and lots of other highly rational people) utterly contrary to all that is reasonable and good, but which other apparently rational people find to fit perfectly with what they observe to be the workings of the world. It's supremely difficult to put aside ones bias, especially when, as my wife points out, Neo-Conservativism is just really bad narrative.

Calvino: That was...deep.

The Stoat: Thanks. Do you take my meaning?

Calvino: Not a bit of it.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Inevitable Entry About Evolution

Over at second americano they've lately brought up evolution, a topic that's been much in the news the last couple of lifetimes or so. Lately our dickwad of a President has espoused that "Intelligent Design" should be taught in schools so that our children can see both sides of the issue.

The Stoat: Actually, let's just stop here for a moment and consider that statement.

Calvino: What statement? That George Bush is a dickwad? He is kind of a dickwad. And aren't I supposed to start these dialogs?

The Stoat: Whatever. And while, yes, George Bush is a dickwad, I think he's a total dickwad, whereas you think he's kind of a dickwad. Let's have a fair and balanced debate about it.

Calvino: Um...okay. Well, I'm sure the President has some slightly redeeming qualities. Also he's not literally a total dickwad.

The Stoat: Yeah, I was kidding there. Though at the same time cleverly making my point. I was talking about George W. implying that Intelligent Design was somehow the binary opposite of the theory of Evolution. Never mind your feelings about intelligent design, never mind your feelings about evolution, never mind your feelings on the Creation Myths/Metaphors of every major or minor religion on Earth, and never mind even your feelings about teaching in public school a theory the main tenet of which is, "Everything our currently accepted scientific theory about the origination of life on earth can't quite explain is due to the devine action of our god," never mind all of that: saying Intelligent Design and Evolution should be taught side by side so that children can see "both sides of the issue"(!) is still a stupid thing to say.

Calvino: You're right. I bow to your superior argument. George Bush is a total dickwad.

Binary Opposition, mind you, is an entirely useful hatchet with which to mentally hew complex concepts. Apparently our president finds it helpful when thinking about the origins of life on earth. Apparently, also, he'd like his particular hatchet (which, to be fair, many proponents of Intelligent Design seem to share) taught to the youth of America. Anyway, this is not really my point, and for all I know he's just pandering to his base and actually has an extremely complex, nuanced view of the origin of the species. Ha ha.

Let's lay out some ground rules, and if you don't accept the following, you've landed smack in the middle of the wrong discourse: over the course of billions of years, out of the primordial soup, amino acids emerged, eventually one of them happened by a stray phospholipid bi-layer and they had a little party together. One fine day such an assemblage ran into a bit of bacteria that specialized in producing ATP and soon the eukaryotes were born. If you believe the earth is 6000 years old, that man was literally created in God's image, and that dinosaurs never roamed the earth...well, if you don't believe dinosaurs roamed the earth, you probably don't surf the net reading blogs, and probably this site is blocked by your porn-filter over its repeated employment of the word, 'dickwad,' and, actually, you probably don't own a computer. Anyway, you've stumbled on the wrong argument. But on the other hand, if you think the theory of evolution has no room for some idea of god, you're also in the wrong discourse.

If you haven't read Rebecca's post about evolution that's linked at the top, go read it now. Seriously. I'll wait. Or I'll summarize: evolution is not a plan, not in the linear sense of plans having planned outcomes. It's a giant roiling experiment, in which the fittest don't really always survive. Sometimes VHS survives and Betamax fizzles out not because VHS is the better product, but because quirks in the market favor the technologically inferior product. And, then, of course, DVD comes along and tanks them both. The market, actually, is a useful metaphor: in a million years the air might be an unbreathable ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide, while dolphins will have evolved opposible thumbs, and the market conditions will make an entirely new order of animals the king of the heap, and any attempt to put life into a linear narrative would have to look rather different than it does now.

Darwin famously lost his religion over his own realizations and theorizations about that roiling experiment. If one absolutely insists on taking ones creation metaphor as literal truth, one must, faced with evidence to the contrary, reject the metaphor as truth or live with some severe cognitive dissonance on the subject. But there's more to it than that: in a market, one can introduce a new product, hoping that it will solve a problem or need in that market, and design the product thus. The product and the plan behind it might not succeed, but there was an intelligent design (word choice intended) behind it. In life there's no evidence that this is true: mutations and variations occur at random and constantly, and 99.99999% of them have no useful effect, or kill off the organism, but the ten millionth mutation is a sodium channel in the phospholipid bilayer, or a white blood cell, or opposable thumbs. A person who has sodium channels, white blood cells, and thumbs looks back at it and sees a linear narrative, because that's what we do as observers. But that's just our story as observers, and right now that story is the only context in which anyone can find a place for God/god. That's true on both sides of George W.'s imagined dichotomy, and I think the really interesting questions about life and god are being missed because of it.