Friday, November 14, 2014

The meaning of life

E. O. Wilson has completely disappointed me in the end.

Entering college, freshmen were asked to read his book The Future of Life, which I thought would be a horrible, sentimental, general plea for saving the environment, a book which can do no one any good because despite how fascinating animals can be, depictions of our vastly differing biomes here on Earth inspire no one to rush out and give up electricity and modern convenience and renounce their cars. Instead, Wilson’s The Future of Life gave us the facts. He gave us facts that as an 18 year old I didn’t understand we could quantify, facts that we had only hoped at and facts that were dismally depressing about the state of our environment. It was inspiring, interesting, clear, well-written. I have recommended it to numerous friends over the years.

A Harvard entomologist and world-renowned ecologist, Wilson is a pretty smart guy. He knows a lot, and importantly he can synthesize and coalesce a lot of technical information into very clear writing. However having just finished reading his most recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence, I would have to say that Wilson’s ability to integrate information and ideas seems not to extend past any discipline that ends with ology.

Throughout the book, Wilson vaguely encourages the humanities, not for any great contribution they have made to human existence but because they represent this particular human condition of bungling through reality with our particular senses and emotions. He notes several times, in fact, that religion and philosophy (which he seems to conflate) sought to explain the universe at one point when there were no structures for scientific study, but now seem to consist of nothing but dogma.

Wilson believes science explains everything. That all we need to know about the universe, about our minds, can be and will be eventually be determined by science. He writes, “The self-contained worldview of the humanities describes the human condition - but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence - the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place.” He’s right - the humanities and science do have different goals and means of investigation and purviews. And I think he’s right that human existence has been molded by the physical world, by evolution, by the universe, but I’m not sure a study of the physical world, of the universe necessarily points back to human existence.

Here’s the deal, I think science is fascinating. And more than fascinating, I think it’s important work. Our scientific exploration of the natural world is the key to understanding where humans came from, how and why we act in particular ways, how our planet fits into the universe, how medicine can cure ills, and one day how to effectively use resources not only to prevent destroying the planet but perhaps also to equalize the human condition and reduce suffering. But even if neurobiology and cognitive science can one day show that our human quest for meaning in life is located in a certain connection of neurons, a trait related to a particular gene, what then does that say? Science cannot describe how we exist - it can just describe the material conditions of the universe.

I do not believe we should all be scientists. I don’t think we all want to be. Some of us want to explore in different ways. And though I believe scientific discovery is vital, we lived, unhappily or not, for millennia without the knowledge we have today. Modern medicine has been lifesaving, but a new, thinner computer we could live without if we needed to. Every human should be able to think like a scientist, should be able to think critically and understand modern methods and theories and knowledge. We should be able to reflect on science in the humanities, just as science historically has been influenced by philosophy and art. I do not think that perfect scientific knowledge is the only end goal of human existence nor do I believe that it will solve all our problems.

This book was an apologia for E. O. Wilson. As an early contributor to the evolutionary theory of inclusive fitness, decades later he now conclusively puts that theory to rest. And this book contains some remarkable connections described in well-written, easily digestible form concerning the human condition, human behavior, human evolution, and the social nature of several species on Earth. This book is a justification of a man's life's work. The one thing Wilson does not do is provide us something new here. He doesn't address our needs and projections and desires and lives as human beings. He doesn't address our drive for meaning and fulfillment. And while he does explicate how we fit into a larger picture of the Earth and the universe, he does not address the meaning of human existence.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Unthoughtful in Oregon

That the Republicans are again in control of the Senate cannot be a disappointment to me. I knew it was coming. I accepted it. It was inevitable. It seems like this sort of flip happens at the end of every president’s second term. The country doesn’t think the President has done enough, that not enough has happened, that their lives have not been significantly transformed because they have haven’t. And that’s not the president’s job. But the country uses this midterm election to stick it to a lame duck president who probably wouldn’t have been able to get much done anyway. The country votes against a president who has two more years in office or doesn’t vote at all, effectively saying we’re already done with you and we’re already looking at 2016.

Fine. That’s fine. I expected as much. I’ve accepted that these are the years when nothing gets done. The country will stagnate for a while. And this is the voice of the people, all the people of America, the great expanding shelf of people without an education, without a thought, with strong convictions and little critical thinking. The country is crazy and that’s why I don’t live there. I live in Oregon.

Yesterday we voted to legalize marijuana in Oregon, which is important not only because the modern consumption and perspectives toward the plant have changed significantly in recent decades. Most importantly, there is no reason so many should be penalized, should be jailed for the possession of marijuana, especially since we know that nationally black Americans men are incarcerated for possession at a far higher rate than white Americans.

But I doubt that Oregon voted to legalize marijuana because so many people here were thinking about social injustice. So many out there were probably thinking about ease of access, cost, their own pleasure. This is fine. These are completely valid reasons to vote for something, to support a cause. Yet it seems to me it’s a huge problem that so many of us cannot support causes that have no direct link to us. If it has nothing to do with me, I can’t be bothered, or it can’t matter, or there’s no reason this law should pass, or it must be wrong.

It is completely disheartening that Oregon voted against extending drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. Enough of us here in Oregon are so illogically stuck on their status here in the States that we can even think about their safety and our own, that we cannot even accommodate their lives here in anyway and cannot seek to sympathize with them.

And it’s disheartening that Oregon voted against labeling GMOs. In a report for OPB, Ryan Haas noted that neither side on this issue openly told the whole the story about the science behind the safety of GMOs, but it’s completely insane that any of us could say to our fellow citizens, no, you don’t have the right to know, to choose. It’s insane that we vetoed a tiny label, something that would cost nothing. And I can’t believe anyone is still falling for that line corporations are feeding us about the price of food increasing. We regulated chemicals to get rid of the hole in the ozone. We regulated the car industry decades ago to ensure that there were seat belts in every car and car makers just cried and cried and said the whole industry would collapse. We required food producers to label ingredients and calorie counts and exposures to allergens but people still shop at grocery stores, we still eat so much crap.

A friend told me he had heard that the GMO bill up before Oregon voters was severely flawed, that it didn’t do enough, that there would still be unlabeled GMOs on the market. And this was an argument I’d heard myself from the anti-labeling campaign spearheaded by our favorite food producers Monsanto and Kraft. Here’s the deal: you sometimes have to start somewhere. I complain a lot about the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act, but with a fiercely partisan congress, it’s amazing that any compromise was achieved at all. There will be revisions and modifications and reworkings to the ACA but we had to start somewhere.

Oregon needs to hold itself up as an example to the rest of the country, as California and New York and Washington state do. We need to put out bold ideas and have the bravery to vote for these bold ideas. So many progressive projects have been implemented in the past, projects that the rest of country have or will eventually take up, but we need to continue to vote for these projects that improve our communities and aid others, even when at times they may require small sacrifices from us as individuals.

This is perhaps the most disappointing result that was delivered Tuesday: Oregonians are not willing to think of other people. People voted against driver registrations for all as well as their neighbor’s right to know the contents of the food they buy. And while I believe the passage of this marijuana legalization bill will prevent so many from needless persecution from this drug and will perhaps help remedy the injustice of black incarceration rates, I do not believe most Oregonians voted for this issue for much more than their own pleasure.

Having lived in Alabama, I remember driving around with a bumper sticker of a blue dot on a red square. A bright blue dot in a really red state, as the slogan goes. Birmingham was a blue dot in a red state, and not even that bright. Here in Oregon, I’m starting to feel the same way. There are certain places, certain people who are bright blue dots in a sea of apathy and self-centeredness, which is all the sadder when I know how much potential this state has. We are privileged with the resources and beauty and current zeitgeist of Oregon today. Now we really to become more conscious of that and of our community and begin to think about what we can do not only to improve our own lives, but how we can accommodate and be conscious of the lives of others.