A world of plastic

So I'm thinking a lot about this ecoliteracy and thinking about our evolved state in the world and what we need to do. My friend Patrick sent this article, "Plastic Ocean: Our Oceans Are Turning Into Plastic. Are We?" to me a little while back and it is one of the most frightening things I have read in a while. I want to share it with you.

It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.

How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin? What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon learn that the answers were even more so, and that his discovery had dire implications for human—and planetary—health. As Alguita glided through the area that scientists now refer to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles. Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.

Leviathan. I'll say.
Humanity occupies an unprecedented niche in the living world. Our ability to adapt to new environments dwarfs all other “higher” taxa animals on planet earth. Though the humpback and bowhead whales sing elegant arias to one another over dozens of miles in a language of which we can only grasp the rudiments, they have no ability to make tools to change their environments. Last year researchers discovered that female chimpanzees in Africa were making and using spears to hunt; additionally, the females were teaching each other how to make the spears, thus creating a spear meme in their local culture. As fascinating as the unknown grammar and syntax of whale languages and “lower” order primate tool-making are, the human ability to speak, write, and read and use that language instinct to manipulate and adapt to its environment stand as both our greatest asset and our greatest weakness.
And here we see how it has become our greatest weakness. The ability to create plastic has naturally coupled itself with the human middle-world desire for convenience and the result? A massive swath of plastic twice the size of Texas. If I were religious, I'd start praying now. But that's not the point.
This is the kind of thing that requires action at every level - bottom-up and top-down. Our enormous evolved brains have gifted us with the most incredible abilities, including the collective delusion that garbage disappears. Out of sight. Out of mind. Here we are in middle world. Will we soon be walking on and swimming in our own trash?

Eco-Realism Part II

"When an opponent declares, 'I will not come over to your side.' I calmly say, 'Your child belongs to us already…What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.'"
- Adolf Hitler

David Orr recognizes in Ecological Literacy (if you're going to buy the book though, get it locally) that in order for children, especially American children we must presume, to become ecologically literate, that a great transformation must occur. Where traditional American education has focused on our developing students’ abilities to recognize and generate semantically meaningful language and become fluent with arithmetic and mathematics so that they might learn and master (at least partially) other scholastic disciplines, Orr believes that we must expand those scholastic disciplines and the application of linguistic and mathematical literacy to develop ecological literacy. “By failing to include ecological perspectives in any number of subjects, students are taught that ecology is unimportant for history, politics, economics, society, and so forth.”
Orr believes that children are the foundation on whom we are to build this brave new world. In order for this to happen, they must be instilled with both a sense of wonder and be given integrative thinking skills.
But some things must first be overcome. First, students need to think broadly about topics. American students are taught in an educational system that presents them with discrete topics where things do not overlap; they are boxed. But good thinking draws connections and presents us with the opportunity to “think at right angles.” Second, we are schooled inside. How are we to realize ourselves as mammals that are a part of the nature of things if we are so constantly shielded from much of the environment? Our schooling places blinders on how our culture shapes the biotic world. Third, and in no small part because we are shielded from nature by our cultural machines and machinations, we do not learn to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of nature. How do we appreciate the beauty of the Great Horned Owl in the knot of the Willow tree if we are cloistered indoors or staring at shopping malls and car lots? We will never see the owl. This is like the world in Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the movie of which was Bladerunner. In its world of technological advancement, animals are all but figments. Yet there is still some vestigial appreciation for their beauty and necessity. So they are engineered. Even worse, given the degree to which American homo sapiens sapiens spends on computers (look where I am now), we could end up in The Matrix or the world of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops wherein human beings are fully integrated into machines that come to own them. You are not only what you eat, but you are what you use. These science fiction stories give us dystopic visions of how our attempt to separate ourselves from nature dooms us not even to forget nature outside of our own creations, but to not even know much of its existence at all.
To avoid this world, we must reeducate ourselves and our children by showing them and ourselves that all education is environmental education. From there, we have to integrate the lion’s share of disciplines and departments into the formal understanding of and dissemination of our gathered information on the environment. This education should take place in patient dialogues wherein we develop respect and understanding whose pace is “governed by cycles of day and night, the seasons, the pace of procreation, and by the larger rhythm of evolutionary and geologic time.” This pacing should lead us to develop experiential means that become, in some ways, the content and initiate a more conversational pedagogy between student and teacher as facilitator. Experiential environmental learning will also develop good thinking which, in turn, develops the learner’s competence with natural systems.
Orr hopes that our new educational culture will create people who realize that they are integrated in the world, part of the great chain of being. Orr, in a marvelous assault, contrasts his philosophy of education with Allan Bloom whose Great Books philosophy was set in stone in his 1987 tract, Closing of the American Mind, a book of such self-congratulatory narcissism that one feels trapped in a hall of mirrors that reflect only Bloom’s face.
However, Bloom does set down a vision of the liberal education, but one that ensconces a philosophy that sets man apart from nature. Bloom writes in his chapter, “Culture” that “[t]his Rousseauan-Kantian vision is in essential agreement with the Enlightenment view of what is natural in man. But for the first time within philosophy, something other and higher that nature is found in man (emphasis mine).” Bloom believes that the American student has lost his (he is thoroughly androcentric and patriarchal) way by losing his connection to the Enlightenment. In many ways, Bloom is right. Some of our best codifications of rational thought come from the Enlightenment and Locke, Kant, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Hume, D’Holbach, Paine, and their intellectual ancestors like John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Bertrand Russell give us great tools for thought. But they are not the end.
In steps Orr, who hopes to reconstruct the liberal arts education “to develop balanced, whole persons who have connected minds and feelings.” He cites Alfred North Whitehead a fair bit. To go beyond Orr’s citations, we read in the preface of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, “We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation.” To use this in Orr’s terms, we should consider that Bloom’s Great Books ideal and the modern world’s scientism (which could now be renamed technologism) has been temporally provincial and myopic and must now shift to a new Kuhnsian paradigm of ecologically realistic science and humanities that would help learners become whole – integrated into their communities, including their campuses.
The quotation with which I opened this essay serves us as a reminder. I don’t just mean to be an alarmist or suggest that Orr and Hitler are somehow morally equivalent. It is pure caution on my part so that we approach the endeavor skeptically and compassionately. Children’s biobehavioral clay is molded by their cultural environments and we, the cultural occupants, shape that culture. We shape it for our own ends and by our own means and we form kinds of learners who become kinds of actors. Anyone who watches Triumph of the Will sees the young German learner believing in the realism of the Reich wherein Aryan science and Aryan humanities were developed. Consider the millions sent to the Gulag because they had violated the doctrines of Socialist Realism. Children are raised to believe in the moral efficacy of misogyny, filicide, patricide, homicide, and genocide by the world’s dominant religions. What we believe and how we believe it profoundly affect our behavior.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said that a man with a gun in hand can kill one, five, or even twenty people. But a man armed with an ideology can kill millions. Ideas have consequences. While I agree with Orr that we need, desperately need, to realize ourselves as part of the biosphere, we must always guard ourselves against the tyrant within us who believes s/he knows what is best for others and will dominate others to see it through.
First, do no harm. Second, love others.

Eco-realism and other ideologies

As a graduate student in education right now, I am faced with an interesting barrage of science. I am taking anthropology which, depending on the branch, is pretty hefty falsifiable Popper-approved science, educational psych which can be so qualitative as to be armchair, and down to economics and political science. Nonetheless, I have to deal with postmodernists who want to relativize and gut lots of science because it doesn't serve their ideological goals.
So we've been reading Ecological Literacy by David Orr who wants us all to believe that we can launch ourselves into a postmodern world wherein we can recapture those good-old days as hunter-gatherers and reattain that Arcadian past. He tells us that he doesn't want a new Eden, but I find it hard to believe. He believes that humans aren't patriarchal. In rare exceptions are they not. We weren't always violent. That's a sham and any tribal society left to its own devices will show you that as will our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees. He also thinks that human evolution took a "wrong turn" because our big brains and our culture have imbued us with a will to dominate nature.
Since when are we supposed to take value judgments from the non-intentional selections of our ancestors' mutations? This, I think is a profound misreading of evolution on par with the the eugenics professors of the late-19th and early 20th centuries who attempted to manipulate populations to create Nietzschean supermen.
Let me explain why, in no small part because I have used evolution as a justification for or realization of the roots of morality. I'd hate to be a hypocrite.
Evolution doesn't take wrong turns in and of itself. Local environmental pressures, which are moment to moment (even if they tend to be fairly consistent over time) select from the gene pool of organizations at any time. That's it. A set of selective pressures can not select a "wrong turn" so to speak. They can only select from what is available. Mutations are non-moral entities. They are random, insofar as DNA can generate "random" material with its limited resources. So to say that something in evolution is a wrong turn is to place a moral value judgment on something that was not moral in the first place, was not intentional, and therefore has no place as something to be castigated as such. It is creationist level nonsense and misreading.
But why am I calling this eco-realism? If you take some time to look at the books, as I hope to do here over the next couple of days, you will see that we are dealing with someone so blinded by ideology that he hopes to make science serve his political and ideological agenda.
This is where some of you might accuse me of being a hypocrite because I see science as serving the atheist. Note, however, that science is not made to serve the atheist agenda. I infer from the findings of science and induce based on the preponderance of the lack of evidence that verifies the god hypothesis (much less the God or Jesus or Allah hypothesis) that god(s) do not exist. But never do I, or does a reasonable scientist, remind themselves before testing and observation that all of this must disprove god's existence. Why bother? It's not what we are interested in as observers of the natural world. Sure, we are methodological naturalists, but we are not all philosophical naturalists. [I am, but I am not a majority.] We needn't put the cart of atheism before the horse of science because we don't have anything to prove. A positive assertion like "God exists" will show itself with evidence. Or...it won't. I needn't worry about it.
Science serves the atheist so far as it shows that natural explanations account for natural phenomena. It doesn't prove in the logical or mathematical sense that we can write a proof for "NO GOD" or make a water-tight deduction like "God doesn't exist." But we can induce from the available lack of data and make a statistical prediction that says, "Given the overwhelming absence of evidence and the very good natural explanations that we gave that god(s) are very very improbable. Why believe in them. Let them present their evidence for themselves instead of using apparently feeble human proxies."
To get back to Orr though, I am wary of his proposed doctrines. He wants to reconstitute the fabric of society. Lots of people have wanted to do this and I am naturally leery of them: Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Napoleon, Bismarck, FDR, MLK, Gandhi, and more. Some of these worked very well. Some not. But you better have really good reasons to make over our society and they better contain a proposal that includes some hefty feasibility and not just wish-thinking and Arcadian revisionism (that's for another time I hope) to send us into a brave new world. Thich Nhat Hahn said something like, a man with a gun in hand can kill one, two, ten, or twenty people; but a man with an ideology he believes to the the truth can kill millions. As much as I sympathize with Orr's position, his eco-literacy could create a new straitjacket that limits free thought and inquiry.

Penn State non-believers unite

Last week I was coming off of campus after my Educational Psychology class and lo and behold, at the gates of the University Park campus stood two students holding a poster that something like, "Atheists and Un-believers unite!" Well, as you can imagine, I sped over to them on my bike and said, "Alright!" and introduced myself.
Nat and Dave and I chatted, I signed a petition to reform the old Penn State Atheist and Agnostics Organization...or something like that. How cool!
The next day I came by and they were there again and some idiot theist (I assume he was a Christian) was up on Nat's face threatening him. One of the coolest things about it, though, was that there were two Christian missionaries there trying to talk Captain Tough-guy down. We were all saying, "Dude. He [Nat] has the right to be here."
"It's an embarrassment!" He must have repeated this several times. It was the PSU vs. Notre Dame football weekend and this guy thought that a couple of atheists trying to organize was a problem. Talk about exactly the kind of guy that I worry really exists! Man.
So after a minute of wrangling and saying that Nat has the right under the First Amendment to gather and speak (the Christian missionaries and I both made this point...thanks guys), Capt. Tough-guy yells, "Not if I kick his ass he doesn't!"
At this point, I said, "Go ahead and do it. Do the Christian thing. Love your neighbor. Turn that other cheek buddy."
After some fluster, he left, clearly very frustrated. And there aren't people blinded by their faiths?
Let's hope that he was just having a bad day though.

Why won't this thing work?

In general, I avoid these kinds of things but...I really like this one. A former student of mine sent it along to me.

Modern prophets of atheism's demise are as deluded as they say they aren't

It's pretty sad, not to mention telling, when some religious folks like Denyse O'Leary (see also here and here)and Alister McGrath resort to prophecies about atheism's pending demise, Over at the Mindful Hack O'Leary has posted some thoughts on the matter. They are like most non-scientific predictions, loaded with wish-thinking and presumably some sort of confirmation bias.
After she lets us know that lots of atheists - namely one: the philosopher Michael Ruse - have a big beef with Richard Dawkins, one of the current so-called "New Atheists" who's gotten a lot of press for saying that religion is not immune to criticism, that it's factual proposition that God(s) exist(s) is so improbable as to be a deluded belief, and that religion as practiced and believed by too many people endangers humanity. His arguments are those that have existed for centuries, but he has the added bonus of the overwhelming majority of the modern scientific enterprise behind his assessments of religion. But I am digressing...
O'Leary wants us to know that the atheists are a desparate lot:

McGrath’s historical analysis sheds some light. He identifies three thinkers as founders of modern materialist atheism: Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), Karl Marx (1818-83), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939. Why these founders? Feuerbach was the first to treat God simply as a construction of the human imagination, essentially replacing theology with religious studies. In other words, when we ask why people believe in God, we do not entertain the idea that God has revealed himself in some way. God does not actually exist, and therefore the causes of belief are sought in society or nature.

I can only do so much with Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, but I will tackle them briefly. Feuerbach, whose work I know only peripherally as a critic of Christianity, believed that human beings are animals infused with thought, will, and emotion. Because we feel so much for ourselves, we wish a being - God and Feuerbach's case - the Christian God into existence who is a paragon of our own image. Marx regarded religion as the "opium of the masses" but not an opiate as a mere diversion. He really thought of it as a medicine that provided the proletariat, the common man, with a respite from the nasty pains of the capitalist industrial society. Though Marx may have been a religious skeptic, he certainly sympathized with belief. Freud, like Feuerbach, thought of religion as an illusion, a manifestation of human wish-thinking. Obviously, we can spill millions of words on these men's thoughts.
Perhaps they had had so much trust in the power of their arguments that they believed that religion would one day fade away, though this seems unlikely. Freud also believed the religious impulse is delusional. While I sympathize with these men, they hadn't 20th- and 21st-century science behind them.
The 18th-century thinkers from d'Holbach and Hume to Jefferson and Paine created a marvelous basis for intellectually and ethically defensible atheism. And while Jefferson and Paine were highly critical and skeptical of relgious claims, they correctly innoculated us against sectarian battles by formulating a nation that separates church and state in which (like Canada too) people can privately address their own religious beliefs. Great. I'm glad. That wall of separation has served us well.
But in a way, whether or not a political system works well for people's private beliefs, that doesn't mean that people's private beliefs are reflected by reality nor that they are true. Not one shred.
O'Leary and McGrath think that Keats and Shelley weren't so bad because they had some sense of "transcendant ideas" like Aristotle and Plato. This is an appeal to the authority of the Greeks, but it's a red herring. When you consider the findings of modern cognitive science (see Pinker, Ramachandran, and Dennett) we find no reason to believe that we have souls. We are material. All of the evidence that we have supports the material proposition and none of it supports the ephemeral phantasmata of the soul. Not one shred.
It's alleged that if we are to accept that we have no souls, that then we are left with nothing but cruelty. Please. Can we stop trying to throw new paint on the gulag? The problem of Stalin is only tangentially an atheist problem. The real problem was true belief or true faith in the end of capitalism and the triumph of his own schizophrenic interpretation of Marxist-Leninist pending triumph. He had NO good evidence to suggest that it would happen. He was a myopic fanatic who believed that he was the inheritor of history. His fervor had all of the hallmarks of religious zealotry, not the strength of reason. Look at or listen to any moral philosopher or listen to or read the words of Dewey, Hook, or Kitcher or the respect and reverence for altruism amongst the "new atheists." These are not the post-modernist relativists that push us around on slippery slopes and not the cruel boogey men and women that O'Leary and McGrath try to assert we are. If anyone is using the po-mo arguments of separate but equal epistemologies, it's the IDists with their damnable forms of religion.
O'Leary ends thusly:

The story of atheism also provides a warning for prophets, religious or otherwise. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that post-atheism would better describe European society than post-theism? Trustworthy prophets should have a better track record.

Did I just see her throw a brick in her own glass house?

Doubting Teresa

Sam Harris has a new article at Newsweek where he exposes Mother Teresa's questions about her own faith. Christopher Hitchens has another at MSNBC. I find her confessions, below, to be rather poignant and that much more sad for not facing the reality of God's actual absence and Jesus' real and eternal death.

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated

This was the tethered mind of someone who felt she had no choice. Here we see the power of what Dan Dennett calls "belief in belief" (explained well here and developed in Breaking The Spell) She wanted to believe because she believed that in that belief she would achieve something that would transcend all of the the suffering of herself and the world; from this belief she could attain a level of love and bliss that she couldn't find in earthly life. Or, perphaps, it was her belief in belief that prevented attaining real joy here on Earth because belief in a supernatural omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent God would only ever grant it later. Thus, her embrace of universal suffering and her death houses (see Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).
Just briefly, revisit this segment:

If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

This is much like one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 130, De Profundis clamavi est, which reads:

Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
If Thou, O Lord, shalt observe iniquities; Lord, who shall endure it?
For with Thee there is merciful forgiveness:
and by reason of Thy law, I have waited for Thee, O Lord.
My soul hath relied on His word; my soul hath hoped in the Lord.
From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.
Because with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him plentiful redemption.
And He shall redeem Israel from all her iniquities.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Let us pray.
O God, the Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful,
grant to the souls of Thy servants departed the remission of all their sins,
that through our pious supplication they may obtain that pardon
which they have always desired;
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

That's beautiful stuff in the light of medieval thinking. It is a call from loneliness to hope and I have and always will have a soft spot for it because it is the earnest cry of one who feels banished. Perhaps something could save the Psalmist from his and his community's iniquities? But alas, like Teresa, the Psalmist too was alone and without a God who reigns for ever and ever.

What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

The reality is "darkness and coldness and emptiness" when you seek for that which is not there and maybe Teresa knew that nothing was there but fought it every day of her life as she sought for that thing, that eternal love from a fictitious malevolent filicidal misogynist that would never come. When people are tools for such a non-existent entity, they are NOT ends in themselves. They are MEANS for God. How can you have an "I-thou" relationship with someone who believes in nothing? Really, turn the question around: How can a person who believes in nothing have an "I-thou" relationship with you? By deceiving themselves perhaps. But it seems that it takes a rather herculean effort that stretches the believer on a Procrustean bed that really destroys parts of them.
Here we see Teresa faced with the existential crisis and it is binary, as I suppose it often is. She has faced herself with a seemingly logical chain:
1. There can be no meaning in life without a soul.
2. Souls come from God.
3. There is no God.
4. Therefore, I have no soul
5. Therefore, I have no meaning in life.
But her deduction is only as good as her premise, the first of which is false and so is its conclusion. Were she to have been unfettered by her slavish belief in belief, perhaps she'd have worked to alleviate people's suffering instead of giving them places to die from that suffering. Did she really make a mistake in surrendering her life to the Sacred Heart? It would seem so. As Hitchens notes, "It seems, therefore, that all the things that made Mother Teresa famous—the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy—were only part of an effort to still the misery within." A lifetime of overcompensation. We can almost see the little woman inside of her like the real wizard in The Wizard of Oz, shouting all the time, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
But it would seem that there never was a man behind the curtain in this case, just the palest simulacrum.
So out of the depths I call to you my brothers and sisters, and that you will listen to the sincerity of my voice and leave behind these chains, stop this poison, break this spell, end this faith, and free yourself from this delusion that calls itself by many names - God, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, or Shiva - and leads us into meaningless labyrinths of smoke and mirrors.