Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.

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source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.

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Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–stevetobin.com

 

 

 

Growing, watching

Garden update: my valley experiences, once again, a bit of drought.

And I have scored a victory–possibly temporary–against the bunnies, thanks to some very hard, hot work by a pair of my best beloveds and lots of chicken wire. Now, as the weather gets into longs spates of heat and humidity, I watch and wait while the garden does its growing.

I watch the tomatoes ripen. I watch the birds:

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Three swallows among the tomatoes

The bluebirds enjoy perching on the fenceposts. This one doesn’t look too blue, but I promise it is a bluebird.

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I guess I need a longer lens.

I watch the herbs and vegetables flower. The cilantro and dill flowers bring all kinds of pollinators to the garden. I found a new kind of very tiny bee this morning, but my camera doesn’t have the best close-up lens. It was a cute bee, very small, grey, and fuzzy.

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The borage gets a bit thuggish but attracts pollinators; cilantro and dill manage to sow themselves among the onion rows.

The beans rows are missing, because the rabbits ate them all.

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Speaking of bees and pollinators in general, I have found some lovely blogs by entomologists online, full of close-up photos, environmental information, and fascinating tidbits about bugs and their interactions with the flora and fauna that surrounds them. I am continually struck by the amazing interconnectedness of life when I read these posts. In addition, something about the sort of scientists who observe insects at close range and study their anatomy and life cycles seems to inspire a kind of geeky humor as they follow their biology passion into the field. Or maybe that quality exists only among the sort of entomologists who also blog!

Here’s one I like, Standing Out in My Field, the nature of a punny field biologist.

Possibly I should have followed my own third-grade dream of becoming “a scientist.” My tendency to watch things, especially as they grow–to be an observer–would have served me well in a scientific field discipline. Though it isn’t a bad quality for a writer to possess, either.

As to what matters

What matters, at this moment, are compassion and communication–and recalling that communication requires listening, especially when we assume we know what the Other will say. [The Other may be black, or white, or a parent, or a politician, or of a different culture, etc.]

http://blacklivesmatter.com/

To people of color in the United States of America, in particular to African-Americans: Ask your questions. Speak up. I understand that some of you are prepared for argument and rhetoric, others for fear, anger, and defensiveness. You are tired, perhaps, of speaking up. Tired of the resulting outcry and pushback and character assassination and judgment and stereotyping. Tired of the pain. I get what you are feeling, even though it isn’t my personal experience, even though my social experience differs from your social experience.

Speak up nonetheless. Many of us finally recognize the need to listen. It matters because once someone signals readiness, true perspective begins. Because connections must occur before listening can occur. Where do we begin?

“Why don’t you listen?” is a good question, though it tends to put the Other on the defensive. If, however, people can hear genuine curiosity behind the interlocutor, there may be a moment of pausing to reflect: “I thought I was listening. Why do you think I am not?” Both parties need to ease the borders a bit (not a popular thing to do, I know).

So often, perspectives vary so widely that each of us carries into the discussion a host of unspoken assumptions based upon the only experience each of us has–our own. No one can ask the child-like, curious questions without being accused of hidden or not-so-hidden agendas.

I am reminded of an old saw one of my high school teachers wrote on the chalkboard:

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Learning to listen and to accept and to formulate questions reminds me of the process of raising children. Really. My perspective as an adult in the world–my assumptions–so often trumped what my children were experiencing as small people with totally unexpected and intriguing perspectives on life. I had to learn to listen to their points of view at least some of the time, and I was always rewarded with insights I would not have discovered on my own. (I referred often to the Faber & Mazlish book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk when my children were at home.) We have to make ourselves more aware, and much much much more patient than usually comes naturally, as parents and as members of a wider community than human societies have ever encountered before.

Yes, we yearn for answers. We do. That yearning may be part of the human genome. But just like our brains, and our conscious sense of self or selves, it’s complicated.

It would be helpful for all of us to recognize that listening to questions, and forming more inquiries–rather than answers or arguments–supplies the basics of Socratic inquiry. For the methods application in contemporary society, check out books by Christopher Phillips. Despite my occasional ramblings and speculations on rational thought (see many of my previous posts on argument, pedagogy, philosophy), argument may not be our best human tool at all times. The best human tool is compassion.

What matters is that human beings, whatever our color or culture, enter into relationships with one another and with our environments. That we admit to complexities and to questions; that we remain curious, which opens us to connections and enables us to see how vital all kinds of relationships are. Do people need to be reminded that #BlackLivesMatter? Yes, alas, people do. While a few of the social majority of human beings in the USA are more cognizant than usual, grab the moment. And people? Listen.

Because there actually is but one species of human being. Let us be homo sapiens–wise, judicious, sensible.

 

Beatrix Potter, interdisciplinary artist

Beatrix Potter came to mind yesterday when I watched a young rabbit struggle into a fix as it tried to escape from me through the newly-reinforced fencing. It had gotten in at a spot we left open after some hours of work on a hot day yesterday, but it could not locate the open span when I cornered it among my beans.rabbit-014

In “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” Potter writes: “Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate…he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net…”

Very observant description of cornered-bunny behavior. I felt rather sorry for the bunny in my vegetable patch. It had squeezed itself between a gap and then found itself impressed against chicken wire, and for a few seconds there was a mash-up of fur, feet, and fencing in a whir of sheer panic. The rabbit freed itself, however, with an acrobatic twist through a gap, ran back into the garden; and after a few false tries, finally located an unreinforced section of the garden fence and escaped toward the hedgerow.

~

Potter was an admirable writer of engaging prose, a terrific watercolorist and an amateur mycologist whose careful observations of the plants and animals in her Lakes District farm environs still draw admirers to her work. I think of her as a kind of turn-of-the-century interdisciplinary artist, though I cannot imagine she would ever perceive of herself in that light. She might agree that she was an excellent observer of the world–a quality that benefits scientists, artists, writers, journalists, and farmers. If all you think of when you see her name is “children’s books,” go to the Beatrix Potter Society’s website and learn how much you did not know about her.

 

 

Wasp redux & reading

Last year, I had my first encounter with a grass-carrying wasp.

Today, I noticed some waxy, crumbly, yellowish bits around the post in which last year’s wasp had built its nest. Then I saw an adult grass-carrying wasp hovering to and fro with a stem of grass grasped in its legs, which led me to this year’s nest–in a different hole in our post-and-beam porch. Who knew the wood had so many little holes in it? The wasps sure found them! Today’s wasp has built in a much harder place to photograph, a vertical spot, behind a post. So last year’s photo will have to suffice.

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Isodontia: nest construction in progress

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I am not quick at writing poems in response to events, personal or public; generally I need time to consider deeply, to process. I am glad to participate in an upcoming event, however, taking place in Bethlehem PA as a public response to the Orlando Pulse shooting. LGBT citizens of the region, and families, friends and supporters of compassion and awareness, are gathering for a memorial and celebration of support for everyday Americans, which includes–we must recognize, and it would be wise and sane to accept–people who are LGBT/gender fluid & who are just human beings notwithstanding, as are we all.

For those in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, the poetry reading is at Sun Inn’s courtyard on Friday July 1. I may not have a poem of my own to read, but I have been reading through my library and have already located several poems by other writers that will serve well as responses to tragedy, personal or national, or which speak to the human-ness of all of us.

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I am doing a little nesting of my own this week, retreating into a metaphorical burrow for a couple of days, I hope. And with any luck, I will emerge with some new drafts of poems.

 

 

 

Garden breach

Summer solstice. The robins are on their second brood; mulberries are ripening, and the bluebirds have arrived for the feast.

Fifteen years ago, we set up my garden to be as impregnable as possible from incursions by deer and rabbits. We accomplished this by digging a narrow trench on the perimeter, lining the trench with wire mesh fabric, filling the trench with gravel–after setting the steel posts and putting the steel wire fencing in place. The strategy even deterred weeds for about three years.

But rain and snow and air and therefore rust, along with ground heave and the occasional bump by lawnmowers, have had their way. While deer still ignore the plot, this year, bunnies have breached the fence. It’s time to find a new way to keep them from the edges.

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I have previously written about how fringes and perimeters can be boundaries or places of activity and fluidity, so it seems I am a hypocrite for keeping my rabbits at bay. Maybe I ought to find a balance? Living with their denuding of my carrot tops?

–No, they’ve plenty to eat in my lawn and in the meadow. The balance goes both ways.

Their persistence interests me. Their movements are both awkward and graceful. Their ears are translucent in the early morning sunshine. I don’t mind having them around as long as they stay out of my vegetable patch, and they feed the owls and hawks, whom I also enjoy.

All along the edges…

~

Curious information note of the day:

According to neuroscientific studies, less than 0.1% of the information carried in the optic nerve at any given moment passes through the visual attentional gateway (“bottleneck”) after the attentional gateway recognizes a cue; the cue evidently serves as a gating mechanism to regulate the flow of image data.*

What this implies (I think) is that the bunny I manage to spot under the leafy tomato plant in my garden gets processed as “bunny” once my saccadic eye movements, taking in the huge quantity of data from a day outdoors in summer, recognizes something in the shadows that signals “rabbit?” and then filters out other, distracting data from my view.

At which point, behavioral habit kicks in and, like Mr. McGregor, I dash after Peter with a hoe.

~

*partial quote/paraphrase from “Dynamic Routing Strategies in Sensory, Motor and Cognitive Processing,” Van Essen, Anderson, and Olshausen 1994 MIT Press Large-Scale Neuronal Theories of the Brain, ed Koch & Davis.

 

On absence

I have experienced a felt absence lately, a sense of missing.

Maybe the world is too much with me. I have responses to the Stanford rape case, responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the US presidential campaign, to the mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando; responses to some personal challenges, as well–health: my own and loved ones’, among other concerns.

Responding represents the equal and opposite reaction to any action, in a Newtonian metaphor. And what my body and my mind these days are saying to me is “step back, reflect.”

Humans love immediacy–the rapid Twitter argument, the comments on opinion posts, the punch in the gut. Animals need rapid responses in order to negotiate a world of predator and prey; humans, however, (and, more than most of us realize, many other animals) also possess the ability to reflect on what the feelings are. What they may mean. How that meaning may alter our responding mechanisms. We can–if we pause to do so–put ourselves in the place of the Other, imagine different perspectives that may color our responses.

Sometimes, we may need to absent ourselves awhile. To put some distance between our feelings and the conflicts we engage in. We need feelings and we need thoughts, we need responses and we need observation from other viewpoints.

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It occurs to me that poetry is the conversation between the rational, languaged mind and the mind of feeling and imagery. This effort involves the same mind at work on two or more fronts, the human brain constructed as it is to handle multiple levels of feedback, feedforward, and association.

Poetry isn’t “about emotions.” It’s an art that employs language to represent the tension between the rational and the feeling, the mind’s mighty efforts to engage with the difficult and the heart-stirring.

This is how reading about neuroscience enhances my interpretation and understanding of what poets do. I read difficult books and eschew spending time on the internet. I sit on my back porch and ponder. A buzzard swings to and fro above, gliding on the updrafts. I try to heal myself. I cannot heal the world.

 

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