A blog by Paul Wallace

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    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.

    -- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

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    Brown snakes, gastropods, and the very present darkness

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    WE MOVED INTO our present house in mid-2015. Whoever landscaped the place really had a thing for rocks. There may be excellent reasons to have rocks everywhere but sometimes they get in the way, especially during the annual mowing of the monkey grass. We have one bed that contains about a dozen rocks, each the size of a small shoebox. At the time of mowing they’re completely hidden by the grass so I need to raise my mower blade and progress super carefully.

    The weekend before last I was performing this task and, with no particular purpose in mind, looked under a rock near the edge of the bed. And lo! There rested a pair of North American brown snakes, each no more than six inches long, and a fine little land snail. The creatures were hibernating. I picked up one of the snakes. It was rigid and sluggish and stupefied. It never did the normal snakey crawley thing. It just sat in my hand and occasionally smelled the air with its tiny black forked tongue.

    For days now I have taken great pleasure in this photo. It has been an antidote to the deadly flow of news, fake news, and juiced-up opinion on the Internet, which, these days, I navigate with trepidation. I have tried to trim my sources of information while maintaining a range of perspectives, but even the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic and the Washington Post give me plenty to worry about, even as I call my senators and donate to environmental organizations for the first time in my life. And I am looking for new ways to engage with the world, to do my part in righting this listing ship called America.

    In my view the Christian life is a balance of contemplation and action (as Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works”). To be effective, action must be principled, focused, deliberate, persistent, and hopeful. I myself cannot maintain this attitude without a strong dose of contemplation. So I am thankful for the snakes and the snails for helping to settle my frenzied soul over the last couple of weeks.

    It is a strange world where such beauty and complexity and organization can be found under rocks. “There is no accounting for a single second of it,” wrote Annie Dillard.

    It’s a world worth fighting for. May we all find new ways to do that today.

    Pilgrim at Peachtree Creek

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    The South Fork of Peachtree Creek at the crossing near the Old Decatur Water Works

    Some books wait for you to be ready for them, then they call.

    Elizabeth and I were married in the summer of 1991. When she moved into my apartment in Durham she brought a paperback of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with her. The volume commenced to mark time on our shelves, waiting patiently through twenty-five holiday seasons, seven moves, five job changes, three childhoods, two reluctant arrivals at middle age, the ripening of a marriage, the loss of a beloved one, and all the discussions, arguments, misunderstandings, joyful celebrations, TV shows, jokes, board games, and silences these events imply.

    Then, late one night in December, I wandered into the living room, walked over to the bookshelf, and picked it up. Like the One Ring, its time had come. And like the One Ring, it has taken possession of its bearer. I read it in a few days, turned from page 279 back to page 1, and read it again, slowly this time, taking care to stop when fatigued, building pictures in my mind, looking up words, researching creatures.

    I’ve always loved nature, but for most of my years that love has been directed toward its remote and alien features: atomic nuclei, distant galaxies, abstractions—the more abstract the better. That ended in May when Dad died. My field of view contracted overnight. Suddenly I had a distaste for abstractions and generalities, and an appetite for all things concrete and specific. I became interested in what was happening in my backyard, and by this I mean my actual backyard, out behind my house: this bird, that tree. The other stuff could go hang.

    My field of view has undergone an expansion since then, a kind of rebound, but, given the scale of the universe, not much of one. Several months after Dad died and long before picking up Pilgrim, I began visiting Ira B. Melton Park as often as possible. This is a wood very near my house. The South Fork of Peachtree Creek runs through it, and several smaller creeks contribute to the landscape, as does the CSX Railroad and the Old Decatur Water Works. I’ve not yet finished my initial exploration of all Ira B.’s trails, which show themselves clearly in winter, but I think I’m close (I’m not in a hurry).

    My affection for the creek was growing when I picked up Dillard’s book; this is surely what led me to choose it after so many years. But I was not prepared for what it has given me.

    And what is that? It’s not Dillard’s prose, which hurts my feelings because it’s so good, so unreachable, transcendent. Nor is it her descriptions of rotifers and moth larvae and muskrats and green herons, which evince a great and infectious love. Nor is it her conclusion, that beauty is real and a sign of holiness, which is true. These are all gifts, but none come close to what Pilgrim, above all books, has granted me: permission.

    A thing has been growing in me, a sense that our theological language is dead. It might (or might not) be sufficient in churches and official theological circles, but nearly all Christian God-talk resists translation to those who live and move outside these worlds. This is to some degree unavoidable and even proper: every community has its own words and these words are surely important, linked as they are to the community’s life and practices. But sometimes a language dies, even as it remains in use.

    As it has for me. Large parts of the Christian lexicon no longer have any meaning for me, if they ever did. So much of it seems abstract, unconnected, loveless. But I believe in God as much as I ever have, probably even more. Also, I’m convinced (and this is a whole other post, or book) that the God I believe in is the very one to which Christianity points. So you might see my problem.

    What I’ve needed, without being conscious of it until I read Pilgrim, is permission to love the woods and the creek and the sky without apology, and therefore to use the language of these things when I talk about God. The language has always been there, ready to be picked up. I have known some of it for years and am learning more every day. Pilgrim has allowed me to start using this language theologically and without hesitation. 

    Dillard bristles at the label nature writer. “Pilgrim is a book of theology,” she told her editor in 1974, and this is the exact point. God is mentioned in the book, yes, but not often. On its surface it’s more about snakes, seasons, mantises, and horsehair worms than anything else, but the infinite swells and crashes one thin layer beneath these finitudes.

    Whether God created the heavens and the earth is not Dillard’s question, nor is it mine. It is, instead, the one given, the statement of faith, the creed that drove her to write Pilgrim in the first place and drives me to Peachtree Creek as often as I can make the walk.

    The question Dillard asks, and I’m asking too, is: What kind of God would make a world like ours?

    How to forget your insignificance

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    There’s a terrible lot of out there out there — SBU, p 137

    I WRITE A regular column for Nurturing Faith. It’s an ask-the-scientist-a-question thing. In the current issue a reader asks: “Taking into account scientific calculations for the size and expansion and age of the cosmos, what is your view of the spiritual significance of humans in the universe?”

    I read this: If we’re so small, how can we be significant?

    Looking back over my answer I realize it’s an outline for a chapter that would’ve fit perfectly in Stars Beneath Us, a summary of the Chapter That Wasn’t. Here’s the idea, starting with Job, a major figure in the book:

    Job, “the greatest man among the people of the east,” spends his whole life being significant. Then, all of a sudden, he’s not. For years he’s the Big Kahuna, the Stuff, the Wizard of Uz, respected by everyone, heralded by princes, beloved by widows and orphans, rich as hell and just as generous. Then POOF he’s outside the city walls, squatting on the ash heap, forgotten and despised. The only people who pay attention to Job — besides his hostile and insecure “friends” who think he’s getting what he deserves — are the poorest of the poor and the meanest of the mean, who make sport of him by spitting on him and calling him names.

    Our hero has lost his family, his wealth, and his health, but one of the things he misses most is his significance. “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy. They waited for me as for the rain, they opened their mouths as for the spring rain,” Job says about his former generosity to the powerless. “But now they mock me in song; they abhor me; they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.”

    Job is a former judge and knows injustice when he sees it. A devout man, he calls on God to set things straight. After a lot of silence, God responds by taking Job on a hair-raising cosmic tour which seems designed to make his problems even worse: it underlines Job’s insignificance and marginalizes human civilization itself. The social universe Job once ruled is revealed to be but one of countless communities beloved by God: the deer, the wild ox, the ostrich, the vulture, the mountain goat, the wild ass, and other animals form societies not so different from Job’s. These animals seem mild and tame to us — they can be found in any zoo — but in Job’s day they occupied the remotest cosmic margins; they may as well have lived on the moon. The tour is undomesticated and shirks neither folly nor death.

    The effect on Job is simple: he is downsized to an afterthought. Not only is he stuck at the bottom of human society; that society is now revealed to be one of many. It is lost in a near-infinity of worlds, and so is he.

    But, amazingly, Job doesn’t care; in fact, the tour leaves him content. After it’s over he picks himself up off the ash heap, brushes himself off, and moves ahead with his life.

    Why does this ego-reducing ride through the cosmos so satisfy him?

    Maybe the answer is found in the phrase: beloved by God.

    Job found himself and human society, like every other creature and community, the objects of a cosmic and divine love he had never known until that moment. What if you knew, at the still axis of your soul, that you are at home in the cosmos, that you are known and loved by a comprehensive, crazy-ass, I-would-go-to-my-grave-for-you love? If you knew this truly, would you spend even a single minute worrying about your significance?

    No, you wouldn’t, any more than a five-year-old, loved by her family and making mudpies in her front yard, worries about her significance. The question of significance doesn’t even come up — can’t come up — because it resides in a dimension unreachable from her world of love.

    I know: you’re not a five-year-old and it’s been a dark year in a hard world. It’s difficult to trust anything. I’m not saying it’s easy to believe in love. It’s ridiculous.

    But what if our craving for significance — okay I’ll say it, MY craving for significance, which is persistent — is a mark of alienation? Here at age 48 I’m beginning to feel like I’m straining for something I already have but can’t see or embrace because I’m fixed on ideas that have nothing to do with love. Like Job, perhaps I need to jump the rails I’m stuck on, the ones that run between the towns called Significance and Insignificance, and enter the wilderness.

    Out there, who knows? Along with the big wide world, maybe I’ll find love too. Or, more to the point, maybe love will find me. And if that happens I might forget, once and for all time, my own insignificance.

    Yes, quantum physics is weird, but let’s not lose our senses

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    Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment designed to point out the silliness of over-interpreting quantum mechanics. It was devised in 1935. Alas: the silliness remains

    This Atlantic article was published back in April but it has come to my attention only recently. Two friends have independently sent it to me in the last month and asked for my thoughts.

    It’s an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California. It’s about consciousness and how to approach it as a scientific problem.

    Parts of the article make sense. For example, Hoffman argues that quantum mechanics cannot be overlooked in any scientific explanation of consciousness. Quantum mechanics is the physics of tiny things — molecules and atoms and nuclei and quarks — and it is completely different from the circuits-and-pulleys stuff that most neuroscience majors learn in introductory physics. It is counterintuitive and very hard to get used to. And it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that the large-scale activity of a system as complex as the human brain may depend on things that happen on the quantum scale.

    But man is this article annoying. It’s a textbook example of a genre of scientific-ish writing that should have a name but I can’t think of a suitable one at the moment.

    This genre is distinguished by three marks. First is its premise, which is expressed nicely in the article’s title: “The Case Against Reality.” Under this title are statements like, “The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality,” and, in Hoffman’s words, “snakes and trains have no objective features.” The point seems to be that, since the world we perceive, including snakes and trains, is composed of tiny quantum particles, and since tiny quantum particles obey laws that are alien to our senses, then the world as we know it is an illusion. It is the quantum version of a uniquely modern gotcha: “What you know is completely wrong.”

    This genre’s second feature is a super genius explaining why what you know is completely wrong. But invariably the explanation only thickens the fog. Both of my friends who shared the article with me are college-educated and quite intelligent, but even they couldn’t make sense of it.

    The third, and really vexing, mark of the genre (my how it needs a name) is that what it says is true-ish, usually in a narrow, reductive sense. For example, a table seems like a simple thing until you start asking questions about it. And those questions don’t end — they lead you down a molecular-optical-quantum-subnuclear hole that assuredly has no bottom. The more questions you answer, the more new questions appear. And the new questions and their answers get stranger and less intuitive and more abstract as you go. Trying to get a handle on reality in this way is not possible because it’s always slipping between your fingers (btw the Buddhists have known this for thousands of years).

    Hoffman uses as an example a square blue file icon on your computer desktop. He says that the specifics of what we sense — small, square, blue — have no connection to the underlying reality, which is a zillion transistors set in a specific pattern on some chip deep in the computer’s guts. The square blue icon stands in for a reality we don’t have time to worry about. It helps us get through the day — survive, in a Darwinian sense — and that’s all it does. In the same way, Hoffman says, our perception of snakes and trains (and tables) has no clear connection to the underlying nature of these things. Our perceptions are merely symbolic. So he seems to say.

    But at what level do things stop getting symbolic and start getting “real”? At what point down the hole do you say, “This is it. This is reality”? What does “real” even look like? How would we recognize it? What is an atom or a proton or a quark? Do we know these things better than we know tables? Why would we pick the molecular or atomic or nuclear or subnuclear level over any other? And why not go the other way? Physics on superbig scales is also different from our everyday physics (see general relativity, dark energy).

    What really grates is the easy moral: There is no reality. “The idea that what we’re measuring are publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go,” Hoffman says. But no sober physicist would talk this way about anything but individual electrons or nuclei or atoms. Or maybe tiny groups of them. They would never say that a snake or a train or a table is not a publicly accessible object. The physicist would tell us that the rules change at larger scales. They become less prone to statistics and quantum uncertainty. They get more, well, “publicly accessible.”

    Make no mistake: quantum mechanics is wonderful and exciting and mind-bending stuff. It offers lessons worth learning. It is hard to teach or even talk about without losing one’s composure. But: snakes and trains have no objective features? Let’s not lose our senses as well.

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