Tag Archive 'philosophy'

Dec 11 2009

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Philosophical Tramping

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President Obama is one of the more thoughtful, intelligent, and humane world leaders to come along in recent years, and that is why he has received the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of any real accomplishments.  All the same, he didn’t shy away from harsh geopolitical realities when he gave his acceptance speech yesterday.  It made a lot of people squirm, I’m sure.  Realism or idealism?  “I reject this choice,” he said in his defense of “just war,” thus exposing him self to criticism from all quarters.  And suddenly I feel a tremendous urge to pull on my hike boots and go for a long walk.

Some insights come to me instantaneously, while I’m conversing with someone, reading, driving, showering, or just staring out the window.  Others have to be wrenched from the deepest recesses of my brain.  Complex problems, harsh realities, difficult matters both personal and universal – these I cannot face while sitting or standing still.  My legs have to be moving in order for me to gain any fresh insight into them whatsoever.  I am one of those “philosophical tramps” that Barbara Hurd talks about in her book, Stirring the Mud, who can face great difficulties only by walking.  And now, after reading Obama’s acceptance speech, I have much to consider, requiring a good, long stretch of the legs.

I too reject the false choice between realism and idealism – between the harsh realities that all pragmatists learn to accept over time, and the unsinkable hopes of dreamers.  But it’s a tough place to be, between the two, and only the perpetual contradiction of wild nature gives me room enough to maneuver between what is and what could be.  Only in the wild does anything human make sense to me, including my own pragmatism, my own cherished dreams.

The other day I cut tracks in the snow while walking among the trees, trying my damnedest to get to the root of personal matters that have been troubling me for quite some time.  On other outings, I have walked to gain a morsel of wisdom concerning metaphysical matters way too abstract to trouble most people.  Personal or impersonal, it’s all the same to the wild.  That oracle doesn’t differentiate between the one and the many.

Perhaps we shouldn’t either.  Perhaps that which affects one of us affects us all.  Perhaps the most profoundly philosophical matters are those that determine how we go about our daily lives.  The gas in the tank of my car, for example, is geopolitical.  Its emissions will have an impact, great or slight, upon every other creature on this planet.  That’s something to consider, anyhow, as I’m motoring to the nearest trailhead.  And perhaps that’s what Obama was driving at in his speech.  I don’t know, I’m not sure, so I’ll go for a long walk and think about it.  That is, after all, what we philosophical tramps do.

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Jul 27 2009

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Nature and Irrationality

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From what I can tell, there are two prevailing approaches to nature these days: the holistic and the rationalistic.  Those who take the holistic approach perceive nature as a seamless whole, which holds itself in eternal balance – when undisturbed by humans that is.  Those who take the rationalistic approach assert that there is a logical explanation for everything in nature, even the allegedly erratic behavior of individual plants, animals and people.  This is the fundamental difference between East and West, between the philosophies of the Orient and those that arose from ancient Greece.  Or so we are told.  But I don’t buy it.

In the 21st Century, a third approach is emerging – one that fuses the holistic with the rationalistic, the East with the West, the right brain with the left.  In this approach, Mother Earth is respected even as science is embraced.  Taking this approach, reasonable men and women work as stewards, helping nature restore itself to its proper balance.  But I don’t buy this, either.

There is, of course, that old-time view of nature as a world “red in tooth and claw,” where strong prevail and weak perish, but aside from a handful of libertarian anarchists, I’ve never met anyone who truly believes this.  The problem with this approach is that civilization keeps getting in the way.  What room is there for civility in such a world, for law and order?

The way I see it, the wild has no place in any of these views.  And when I say “wild” here, I mean truly wild – wild in a way that no theologian, scientist, or philosopher could ever fully explain.  The wild as fundamental contradiction, as aberration of nature, as inherent absurdity.  I seem to be one of the few people who believe that wildness of this sort exists.

After several decades of rumination, I have reached the conclusion that nature is predicated by the irrational.  I don’t think there can be any serious discussion about nature without the thorny issue of wildness being addressed, first and foremost.  And yes, I suspect that wildness and irrationality are cut from the same cloth, that all deviations from the norm are, in fact, as much a part of nature as the norm itself.  In other words, nothing stands outside of nature.

So go ahead and call me a Pantheist.  I won’t deny it.  It would be irrational for me to do so.  Then again, it’s hard to say how I’ll react to any box drawn around me.  And this is precisely why wildness, human or otherwise, is so dangerous.

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May 01 2009

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The Politics of Nature

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People naturally assume that I’m eager to save the planet from the ravages of industrialism, protect all endangered species from extinction, and preserve as much wild forest as possible.  Surely someone as passionate about wild nature as I am must be an environmental activist, or so the conventional line of reasoning goes.  This assumption is made by liberals and conservatives alike, and confusion registers visibly in their faces when I deny it.  And when I add that I reject “-Ist” and “-Ism” altogether, that I’m too much of a philosopher to be truly political, most people peg me as a fence-sitter and leave it at that.  Who can blame them?  Action is what matters in this world of ours.  Words are only words.

I studied too much political theory back in college – that’s the problem.  I learned all I could learn about Socialism, Fascism, Republicanism, Democracy, Theocracy and the rest of it.  I even cultivated my own alternative political philosophy for a while.  But all that is just theory.  Politics is the concentration and exercise of power to project one’s own cherished values onto the world.  Ideology is merely the excuse needed to get the job done, to mobilize other people to action.  As a would-be propagandist and pamphleteer, I see right through the advertisements, both left and right.  In other words, I know bullshit when I see it, and no “Ism” is an exception to the rule, not even Anarchism.

Generally speaking, I am reluctant to voice this opinion of mine – and that’s all it is, really – because there’s no advantage in offending nearly everyone else on the planet.  But make no mistake about it, I don’t care to wave any flag, even one with a picture of Mother Earth on it.

While activists break into two distinct camps, warring with each other in the political arena, global warming continues, thousands of species disappear, and the wild forest grows smaller. When the liberals are in power, laws are passed protecting the environment – keeping Big Business from trashing it, that is.  When the conservatives are in power, those laws are rescinded or new ones are passed, enabling businessmen to profit from the use and abuse of natural resources no matter what.  Back and forth the pendulum swings, year-in and year-out.  To what end?  Do you really believe that one side will ultimately win this battle?  Do you really think that an activist of any stripe can do anything that can’t be undone?

What’s at stake here is quality of life – the quality of our lives, not those of trees, whales or spotted owls.  It’s really more a matter of economics, not politics.  When enough people grasp the true cost of their shopping mall world, and what is lost in the process of perpetuating it, there will be little resistance to salvaging what’s left of the wild.  Most people act in their own best interest.  All any real lover of wild things needs to do is show them exactly what’s at stake.  Then nature will take its course.

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Feb 11 2009

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Does Nature Exist?

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This week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin – the man whose name is practically synonymous with evolution.  It’s a good time to celebrate natural science, or at least acknowledge Darwin’s work.  But evolution has become politicized, like everything else.  When reading about an organization currently pushing the slogan: “evolve beyond belief,” I am tempted to dive into the fray and argue that belief and evolution are not mutually exclusive.  Then I remember who/what I am and where I really stand on this matter, and out comes this question: Does nature exist?

You think I’m kidding.  You look out the window at the sky, the trees, and the songbirds at your feeder and you think: “Of course it does.  It’s right here before us as plain as day.”  But I’m not so sure.  That’s why I call myself a philosopher and why most people despise philosophy.  Guys like me ponder for days on end what the average person accepts as common sense.  It seems pretty silly, I’ll admit that.  But in my defense, let me say just this:  Five hundred years ago, common sense dictated that the Earth was flat and the sun, moon and stars revolved around it.  Common sense isn’t wisdom.  The smallest kernel of new knowledge can radically change its trajectory.  If nothing else, Darwin’s life and work illustrates this.

If you’re one of those people who despises philosophy, now’s the time for you to click away to a more entertaining website.  Google “evolve beyond belief” if you’re bored.  I’m sure you’ll have fun with that.  But those of you who don’t mind delving deeper, read on.

No, I’m not kidding.  “Nature” is one of those words, like “truth” and “love,” so loaded with assumption that it’s practically meaningless.  The single most important assumption we make is that Nature exists at all (yes, that’s Nature spelled with a capital N).  If chaos rules the universe, as some scientists and philosophers insist, then what we perceive as order is only an illusion.  So my apparently absurd question can be better worded this way:  Does natural order reign in the universe or is the appearance of it only an illusion?  God or physics – take your pick.  You can believe in one or the other, but to use the word “nature” in any meaningful way, you have to believe in some kind of organizing force.

These days I’m deep into the revision of a philosophical piece that’s a real pleasure to work on.  But every time I come up for air, I am tormented by the kind of false choices that dominate the media and all conversations related to it.  Then suddenly I catch my reflection in the mirror: I am the madman yelling “pears” when everyone else is arguing apples and oranges.  Of course I’m tormented.  I insist upon being a philosopher in a world where the vast majority of people would rather argue than think.  So I should either accept that torment as an occupational hazard and get on with my work, or join the fray.  Hmm…  What would Darwin do?

Those of you who know my drill know that this is when I usually grab my rucksack and head for the hills, more to ruminate than to relax.  But let’s forget about me for a moment and think about that hard working 19th Century amateur scientist who put a wrestler’s hold on the idea of Nature and didn’t let go.  What was he really trying to tell us?  This is worth considering, I think, on the anniversary of the day when that exceptional mind came into the world.

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Jan 07 2009

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Evolution Reconsidered

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A few weeks ago, I posted a rumination called “Evolution is Religion” at this site, drawing fire from those who don’t wholeheartedly agree with me.  My friend Andrew’s criticism of my take on evolution and religion, at his site: http://evolvingmind.info/blog/ , is as good as any.  Check it out.  For those of you more interested in the hard science of evolution, which speaks for itself, there’s a big spread on it in this month’s issue of Scientific American.  For those of you still interested in trying to figure out what the hell I was saying in last month’s blog, read on.

Where did the first living cell come from?  In a sense this question is rhetorical because there’s no possible way for us to reasonably answer it.  I emphasize the word “reasonable” here to dismiss all wild-eyed theories about how it could have emerged, as well as all assertions based upon sacred texts.  A similar question is: What existed before the Big Bang?  That question has the time-bound word “before” in it, thus making it patently absurd to any serious student of cosmology.  I trade in these paradoxes and absurdities on purpose to illustrate how little we really know about nature.  We’ve filled entire libraries with the particulars of the natural world, but the whole of it still confounds us.

Knowing what we do about the particulars of the natural world, I don’t see how anyone can reject the mechanics of evolution outright.  It appears to be written in DNA itself, not to mention the multitude of fossils we’ve collected over the past couple centuries.  But all this suggests that nature as a whole is organized – a concept which begs the existence of some kind of organizing force.  Call that force what you will.  I call it God.

I understand the scientist’s natural revulsion to any kind of Godtalk.  One only has to conjure up images of Copernican heretics burning at the stake to see why men of reason cringe at the mere mention of anything remotely religious.  I also cringe when folks whip out their sacred texts, knowing that there’s a noose and/or torture chamber somewhere waiting for the likes of me, as well.  But that doesn’t change what I see in wild nature.  I see order as well as chaos at work in it, and I can’t for the life of me explain this.

As many people have pointed out to me over the years, my version of God is weak indeed.  I doubt it would hold up in any court, be it religious or secular.  But the wild keeps telling me that I’m onto something here.  And for that reason, I will follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion.  I just hope there isn’t a cup of hemlock waiting for me at the end of this road.

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Oct 02 2008

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Philosophizing Nature

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Yesterday my wife reminded me that I’m weird.  I don’t hold down a full time job.  I wander alone for days on end, grooving with the wild.  I sit around pondering the universe, then write down my thoughts.  Okay, I admit it – I’m an odd duck, and not just because I have no fashion sense and listen to avant-garde jazz.  Lately I’ve been spending a great deal of time philosophizing about nature and it’s only widening the chasm between mainstream society and me.  So I make it a point to do something normal each day, like surfing the net or watching TV.  That helps.

Immediately following my four-day retreat in the Adirondacks, I started revising a new set of philosophical essays that I committed to paper last spring.  Three weeks later, I’m still at it.  But I should finish this particular draft soon.  At the risk of mislabeling the work, I’d call it existential naturalism, even though I’m not really an existentialist or a naturalist.  I don’t particularly care for “-ists” and “-isms,” and that makes describing my worldview somewhat problematical.  But this label gives the reader some idea what my work is about, anyhow.

No philosophy worth taking seriously can be adequately expressed in bumper stickers.  That people even try is a tribute more to their sense of humor than to their wisdom.  But simplicity is a virtue in this day and age, so here are a few statements that characterize my worldview:  1) The mysteries of the natural world (the only world there is) are greater than our ability to comprehend them.  2) God, nature (in general) and human nature (in particular) are inexorably entwined.  3) I, Homo sapiens, am entirely responsible for what I make of myself and the world.

Do you see any glaring contradictions here?  I certainly hope so, otherwise I’m just wasting my time.  To be useful at all, philosophizing has to bring fresh ideas to the table.  Everything else is mere apology for the same old, worn-out worldviews passed down through the centuries, or meaningless blather.  I’d rather be thought of as a walking contradiction than someone who has nothing new to say.

The word “nature” means a thousand different things to a thousand different people.  Like the words “truth” and “love,” it defies easy definition, and that’s probably why philosophers find it so attractive.  But I am certain that such a thing as nature exists when I go for a long walk in the woods.  Only when faced with the countless abstractions of human society – things like dollar bills, contracts and “-isms” – do I start having my doubts.

As soon as I’ve completed this draft, I’ll disappear into the woods for a while.  I’ll wander about aimlessly, grooving on the wild and clearing my head.  Then brand new ideas will crop up.  It’s a vicious circle to be sure.  This is what makes me weird, I guess.  I keep going back to the well, even though this constant re-visioning only complicates matters.  Good thing my wife loves me for it, otherwise I’d be in deep trouble.  There’s not much call for woods wanderers in either the personal ads or the employment pages these days.

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