Tag Archive 'reason'

Dec 29 2023

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Mist, Mystery, Mystical

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Photograph by Judy Ashley

A dense fog has settled over the region during the past few days, accompanied by unseasonably warm temps and intermittent rain. “Gloomy” is how one weather forecaster describes it, and that’s how my wife Judy and many other people feel about it. Where is the snow that makes northern Vermont a winter wonderland this time of year? It hard to keep from thinking the worst.

I, on the other hand, look at it a different way. This thick mist matches my frame of mind these days. I gaze into the forest in my backyard and see familiar objects – namely trees – fade into the misty depths, becoming silhouettes then faded outlines of themselves, then nothing at all. What lies beyond what I can see? Only a blank gray wall.

This is exactly what happens whenever I contemplate Nature spelled with a capital “N.” I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Nature is chockfull of mystery. The three greatest mysteries recognized by most scientists are: the origin of the universe, the origin of life in the universe, and consciousness. All three address, either directly or indirectly, what we human beings are.

The universe supposedly emerged via the Big Bang from an infinitely dense singularity prior to all spacetime, whatever that means. Life emerged later, most likely, from a primal soup on this planet billions of years ago, near some volcanic vent. The level of consciousness that we humans currently enjoy can be traced back to artifacts and cave art created 30,000 to 60,000 years ago. The roots of it probably go back in time much farther than that. As to the consciousness of other animals and the extent to which consciousness pervades the universe, well, that’s anyone’s guess. All this underscores the fundamental mystery that is Nature: why anything exists at all, and why there is the semblance of order in the universe instead of absolute chaos. If none of this makes your head explode, then you are not really thinking about it.

I for one have had moments in my life when I have gazed deep into the unknown, beyond all perceivable objects or the mere suggestions of them, and apprehended What-Is. No, I have not comprehended Nature in its entirely, but I have in these fleeting, mystical moments apprehended it, just as everyone apprehends a dense fog. I have stood awestruck before what some people call mysterium tremendum – the Great Mystery. Such moments are common to those of us who go to the edge of scientific discovery and look beyond it, into the abyss of the unknown. This is how we humans go about making sense of ourselves and the world. This is where reason begins and ends.

As a natural philosopher, I have my speculations about What-Is. Thanks to my senses and cold, hard scientific facts, I have a rough idea what is going on here and elsewhere in the universe. Yet the unknowable still looms large like the dense fog that is lingering over the landscape these days. And I remain awestruck by it.

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Jun 15 2010

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A Sense of Direction

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It wasn’t easy getting up for a hike as rain gathered on the windshield of my car, but I knew I’d see things differently once I was in the thick of things.  My dog, Matika, didn’t care.  She’s up for a hike anytime, anywhere, in any weather.  So I parked my car, grabbed my rain hat, and stepped into the woods.

At first I thought I’d just follow the overgrown skidder trail a short distance beyond the beaver pond, then turn around.  But my legs wanted more.  Despite the bugs, drizzle and tall, wet grass, I was enjoying the walk.  So I kept going until I reached a small clearing illuminated by gray light.  There the skidder trail fragmented into several sketchy paths shooting different directions.  And there, true to my natural inclinations, I chose the path less traveled and ventured deeper.

I recognized the path.  I had walked it a year earlier until it had completely disappeared into the brush.  Shortly after that, I had been turned around for an hour or so.  With that in mind, I checked the compass dangling around my neck.  Yeah, this time I was ready for the wily ways of French Hill.

I followed the fading path until it crested a ridge.  Then it vanished.  I bushwhacked down the far side of the ridge until I came to a long, narrow wetland.  I was tempted to cross it and almost did out of sheer impulse.  My sense of direction told me to turn right.  My compass told me to turn left.  “That can’t be right,” I mumbled.  My dog waited patiently for me to make a decision.  I followed my compass.

Anyone who has ever been in this situation knows the rest of the story.  The compass was right, of course.  I soon tagged a game trail that veered back towards the beaver pond.  When I passed through a familiar gap in an old stone wall, I knew where I was again.  And I was back to my car fifteen minutes later.  Of course.

A compass isn’t infallible, and a certain amount of skill is necessary to use it properly.  Yet it has served me well on countless occasions when my “sense of direction” would have led me astray.  There’s a lesson to be learned here, no doubt, regarding subjective and objective thinking.  But I’ve said enough already.  I’ll leave it to others to draw whatever conclusions they so desire.

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Feb 24 2010

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The Madness of Civilization

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Civilization is indoor plumbing, a dependable food supply, health care, waste management and the social contract among other things, not to mention a host of amenities. Civilization is good for so many reasons that I am reluctant to speak ill of it, even when I’m feeling the wildest of urges.  Then comes tax time and suddenly I’m face-to-face with the absolute madness of it.  Those of you who do your own taxes and can’t use the EZ form know exactly what I’m talking about.  There are 101 ways that civil society can drive one to distraction, but none quite as effectively tax preparation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against paying income taxes.  I leave that complaint to those who think they can fund a well-oiled government by other means.  I’m against the madness of the tax code in general, that has turned tax preparation into a cottage industry in this country.  But an inordinately complex and downright absurd tax code is exactly what you get when you let a bunch of lawyers and other congressmen fight over the rules of it for a hundred years.  Good thing I studied advanced mathematics back in college.  Unfortunately, I studied logic as well.

The madness of civilization isn’t limited to tax code.  Far from it.  There is also airport security, civil litigation, lobbying, insurance, plea bargaining, internet fraud, financial derivatives, bundled mortgages, gridlock, an emergency-room health care system and the war on terror, whatever that means.  I could go on but there’s no need.  You know what I’m talking about.  The madness of civilization are all those vexing aspects of modern living that we’ve simply come to accept. . . until they affect us personally.  Then we tear our hair out.

Emerson, Thoreau and those other Romantic thinkers of the 19th Century turned to wild nature for escape from the hustle and bustle of industrializing society, but that seems like a rather quaint notion to those of us living today.  We are buried in corporate and governmental bureaucracy, menaced constantly by false advertisements, mind-numbing paperwork, irrational rules, conflicting facts and doublespeak.  Nowadays, we turn to the wild out of sheer desperation.  Without it, there is no way to achieve balance – no way to know what is real and what is not.

When I was on the Appalachian Trail last summer, I noticed a direct correlation between the overall well being of those I encountered and how long they had been in the woods.  The long-distance hikers were the happiest.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What is it about modern living that makes torrential downpours, blood-sucking insects, mud, sweat and the many other miseries of wilderness travel look good?  All nature-lovers marvel at the beauty and wonder of wildness, but it’s what they don’t say that gets my attention.  Clearly, the madness affects us all.

An aerodynamics expert once told me that the best airplane designs are the most elegant ones, meaning that truly advanced technologies are marked by their simple beauty.  Systems grow more and more cumbersome until finally a quantum leap occurs and suddenly they’re user-friendly.  Computer software design in the 80s and 90s is a good example of this.  The same can be said about social systems, I think.  And with this in mind, we ought rightly to turn to wild nature for guidance.  Otherwise humankind is doomed to live out the rest of its days in a rat maze entirely of its own making.

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Sep 23 2009

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Greater Nature

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Judy and I were returning home from a late dinner out the other day when we looked up and saw the Milky Way splayed across the sky.  No moon, not even the wisp of a cloud anywhere, and the sun was long gone.  Thousands of stars glittered overhead.  Judy suggested that I pull out my telescope for a quick look.  I noticed that there were no bugs out and the air temperature was nearly ideal, so I did just that.

I pointed the instrument at the brightest object in the southeastern sky, thinking it could be Jupiter.  Sure enough, it was.  Once I centered that planet and its four biggest moons in the eyepiece, Judy took a look.  I told her that she was seeing what Galileo saw with his telescope four hundred years ago: another planet and its satellites – the first hard evidence that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe.  I think she was impressed, not so much by my words but by the image itself.  Yeah, when it comes to astronomy, seeing really is believing.

Judy has encouraged my stargazing over the years but hasn’t taken much interest in it herself.  Quickly sweeping through the sky, I looked for nebulae, recalling how impressive they looked to me when I first saw them.  I wanted to wow my wife.  I had no star map in hand, though, so I gave up that hunt before Judy lost all interest.  I went looking for Andromeda Galaxy, instead.  The Great Square was in clear view directly overhead, so finding Andromeda wasn’t too hard.  All I had to do was follow a familiar path away from the Square with my binoculars.

When finally I got Andromeda Galaxy in sight, I showed it to Judy.  She saw only a fuzzy spot in the eyepiece.  I told her that was all she was going to see with my humble instrument, then reminded her that she was looking at an object two and a half million light years away.  Numbers like that are difficult for anyone to grasp, though, so I expounded:  When the light now reaching her eye left Andromeda, our ancestors were just starting to use stone tools.  But even that was a gross understatement.  Spacetime defies all description, really.  All we can do is approximate it.

Nature is all around us all the time – no farther away than the blades of grass underfoot, the bee buzzing past, or the breeze caressing our brows.  We have come to know it well through our senses, and nearly everyone knows intuitively the difference between what is natural and what is man-made.  But there’s a greater nature out there that requires our reasoning skills as well as our senses to understand, where the boundary between the concrete and the abstract is blurred, where cosmic forces are hard at work and objects are much, much farther away than they appear.  I for one can’t gaze deep into the night sky without thinking about God, about nature with a capital “N.”  Someday I will wander aimlessly through that wilderness as I do the woods.  Someday I will wander and wonder without physical restriction.  Someday.

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Aug 14 2009

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A Sacred Place

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I visited a sacred place the other day – a place I hadn’t visited in a long while.  It’s a wild and beautiful place tucked away in the woods.  Oddly enough, it’s not far from a road.  I’m sure others know about it but I’ve never seen a boot print there, much less another person.  It’s hard to say whether I intentionally sought out the place or simply ended up there.  As soon as one uses words like “sacred,” the mind unhinges from a strictly rational view of things.

A place isn’t sacred just because it’s wild and beautiful.  An aesthetic reaction to a place shouldn’t be confused with deep reverence.  I’ve made that mistake many times.  Yet you know a place is sacred when you sense the presence of the divine in it – the presence of something unspeakably real.  You know you’re in a sacred place when suddenly you sense life’s merry-go-round coming to a screeching halt.  It’s best not to ignore this signal.  As such times, in such places, the world itself is calling you.

A sacred place can be a mountain outcrop, a meadow, or a gorge along the brook.  In such a place I find it very easy pray, meditate, reflect, or simply contemplate existence.  I’ve found many things in a sacred place: morsels of insight, a good idea, a sense of perspective, sometimes even a profound sense of well being.  But sometimes I find nothing at all, and that’s okay.  What you won’t find in such a place is that self-destructive madness that some people call sin.  That’s why the word “sacred” is appropriate here, I think.

What’s that I hear?  – More rational minds are scoffing.  A psychologist tells me that it’s all in my head.  A logician points out the apparent flaws in my thinking.  Others insist that I’m just being emotional.  Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.  But none of this means anything on those rare occasions when I stand face-to-face with the divine.  At such times, I put my faith in the unspeakable, fully aware that reason has its limits.

I didn’t linger the other day.  I stayed in that place long enough only to reacquaint myself with the real.  But when I walked away, my life began anew.  When I was younger, I used to think that every encounter with the sacred necessarily triggers great change.  Now I know better.  It only signals a fresh start, similar to getting out of bed in the morning.  Yet somehow that’s enough.

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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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