Thursday, October 29, 2015

Deep Time

Oliver Sacks died recently. In memory of him, Neil DeGrasse Tyson replayed an episode of his show about him for Star Talk. You can look that up, I’m trying to cut back on linking things for people.

One of the stories that Sacks tells is about his mother when he was a kid. They were walking around in their yard and she told him about bees fertilizing flowers. A bit later,  they saw a Magnolia tree that was being fertilized by beetles. Why would one thing be fertilized by bees and another by beetles? Her answer was one that most mothers couldn’t provide, particularly at the time Oliver was a boy. She said it’s because that tree evolved 80,000 years ago when there were no bees, and it stuck with the beetles as its pollinator.

Upon hearing that, it gave him a rather profound experience of deep time. It’s difficult for human beings to comprehend the space of their own lifetime, let alone the lifetimes of ancestors they know about. Imagining beyond a few hundred years or into the thousands is almost impossible. We can demonstrate that things happened, show evidence for it, but keeping it straight in our heads, we just aren’t wired up for that.

The experience Sacks had is one that few people his age could have had, due simply to lack of knowledge. Most mothers didn’t know this. Fathers either. Even parents today would have trouble googling the answer, if they even noticed the beetles on the Magnolia tree. And if you go back just to your great grandparent’s time, no one knew this. No one was trying to comprehend a 13.7 billion year old universe, because we didn’t know it was that old. We didn’t even know where bees came from.

When I’m asked why I prefer science over religion, I’m sometimes asked why I prefer knowing all the answers over mystery. Well, I don’t have that preference. I don’t know all the answers so there is plenty of mystery. The question is then fine tuned to why I only accept things that are proven. Well, I don’t do that either.

I wake up in a universe full of unknowns every day. I navigate an uncertain future. I assume the sun won’t explode today, but I can’t prove it. I trust someone is keeping an eye on that and would let me know if they thought it would happen anytime soon. If we discover something today that no one expected, then I’ll work on including that in my point of view and deal with all the new questions I’ll have because of it.

More recently, a pastor from my last church put this quote on facebook:

Church never made me aware of evolution and the amazing series of unlikely events that led to a tamarack tree turning golden brown then dropping it’s needles in the Fall. At best, someone would occasionally remark on the beauty of a tree or something else amazing about “God’s creation”. I never saw how wonder is inspired by assigning nature a role of simply part of God. That puts an end to wonder. It only shifts wonder from the many discoverable details happening in front us to something that can’t be found. I’m using their definition here, gods are defined as something you seek, but you can never know or understand them completely.

Eventually it came to seem like a trick. Something to draw me in. Something I was supposed to get closer to if I read the next book or attended the next retreat, but like a radio play that always has a cliff hanger, it was more important to create a question than to seek an answer. Why do we need a god to cause us to wonder anyway? Aren’t we doing that already? We can see curiosity in other animals. We can see in artifacts when humans started to make idols and honor their dead. We went from primitive religions to the complex. We weren’t haplessly bumping around not wondering about anything until a shaman came up and told us to.

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the man seeking enlightenment sits on a bridge and stares at the river flowing under it for days. He does this after living a long life with successes and failures. As a young man, Malidoma Some was told by his elders to stare at a tree for hours until it talked to him. Neil DeGrasse Tyson attended a planetarium when he was young and it inspired a life long love of understanding the cosmos. There’s nothing like that in the Bible. If anything, these fit Biblical descriptions of witchcraft or the dangers of philosophy. If learning by observing nature, by wondering what it can tell us, if that’s witchcraft, get my broom. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

8 points of Progressive Christianity

This one flew by my virtual desktop the other day. I don't remember whence it came. It sounds nice at first glance, and you know there is a “but” coming after that, don't you? By time you get to the bottom, it sounds like all the good peace and harmony things in one tidy list. They didn't even try to force it to 10 items. Kudos.

I'll start at the bottom, where all those nice things are.

Items 4 through 8 are just basic human dignities. No society can survive for long without them. Even a repressive regime tells people they have these rights. George W Bush said he only choose war because that's what he needed to do to achieve peace. The language may lean toward the “liberal” end of the spectrum, such as “restore the integrity of our Earth”, but even those who claim dominion over the earth will usually say they are stewards.

I'll give a few extra points for item 5, “search for understanding” and valuing questions. Not everybody gets the importance of that. Of course saying that is different than actually responding to a question that challenges your world view in a truly open minded and respectful manner. But I don't need to get into the problems of implementing the list.

Moving up to item 3, atheists are not included. Probably because it implies an end to all of that questioning. You could say that's true, but only for religious questions. Atheists of course continue to ask all the questions that everyone else does, like why are we here, what's right, what's good, and what's for breakfast. I have enjoyed spending time in awe and wonder with people who had no idea I didn't believe in their god. Atheism leaves wonder and openness intact while concluding that enough work has been done on all existing theories of Christianity.

I’m not interested in a church that accepts atheists anyway. I’m interested in a community that accepts everyone for who they are. This doesn’t mean anything goes. It means whatever the community is organizing to do, it’s rules about who can join in are related to reaching that goal. Churches have goals and committees and functions, but if you want in, you have to pledge allegiance to a character in a book. You have to say you believe that things in that story are true. Most people do it without their heart really being in it, but if someone comes along and questions what’s in their heart, the wagons begin circle very quickly.

At least that's how it is for me, maybe they had some other atheists in mind when they left them off, and the item does say “ALL”, so that's nice.

Now I need to jump up to Item #1 because #2 doesn't make sense without it. This list starts with the same old barrier that has been around since the beginning, “believeth in me”. I realize that without that, there's no point in having this be about Christianity, but with it, why call it “progressive”? If you want an open community like you say in #3 that accomplishes the things in 4 through 8, why not just say you are a progressive “org” and then say something about welcoming faith traditions if you want. It would really simplify things.

In Item #2, it's almost apologizing for #1. After saying Jesus is the path to the Sacred and Oneness and Unity, it says that there are other ways to get there too. This one also has implementation problems. Just where can you go for this other wisdom? I went to a church that had a Ojibwa pipe ceremony in the basement once, Sufi dancing now and then on a Saturday night, and read from the Tao Te Ching every Sunday. But that was about it. And that's the most progressive church I've ever heard of. Even Unitarians tend to stick to Western Christian ideas.

The general feel I get from this list is, you’re fine with me choosing any belief system, but heaven forbid I choose a system that isn’t based on beliefs at all. Back when I taught Sunday School, I put a poster up in my class that had 15 different versions of what Christians call “The Golden Rule” from a variety of faith traditions, and Confucius, who made no supernatural claim. I've never seen that poster in any other church. I've seen high ranking religious leaders who were unaware that there were other versions. And something like that is not really much of a stretch. I can't imagine an adult Sunday School bringing Hume to their discussion on ethics or Sam Harris to their discussion of free will.

The question not addressed in this list is, what are you trying to accomplish? Is it the stuff in the second half or is making a statement about being inclusive as in 2 and 3 important, or is it all about Jesus and the Sacred and Oneness? Just what those capitalized words mean is a problem for me. It seems when I ask that question, they lead to the other points, so why not just dump the first 3? It would be much easier to understand if you just said you were a group of people that wanted to save the world. That's enough to set you apart.

The only honest answer, the only reason I can see to why you would start off with a belief statement, is that you think that is of primary importance. Nothing else here explains why that is important, and no church I've ever been to or theology I've ever heard of does anything but make that as an assertion. It is simply stated that Jesus leads to these things and the only way to find out is to try it for yourself. If you don't get it, you're doing it wrong and you're not in the club. I don't see what is so progressive about that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Northwoods Naturals Red Spritz

This is a "non-alcoholic beverage". Water is a "non-alcoholic beverage", but they don't usually mention that. So what makes this one different from "red pop". I looked up the website, but they only talk about their alcoholic beverages there, so I don't have nutrition information on this one. My guess is though, that it's low in sugar. You might say it's a "dry" pop, or soda, depending on where you live. Or, as the label says, "not-too-sweet". Any of those descriptions work. It was close to a wine spritzer taste, but no alcohol bite of course. The red taste was more like red grapes, not that strawberry candy taste you get from most red pops. I found this The Duluth Grill, an excellent place to go anyway, and now, one more reason. Hopefully I can find it somewhere else too because I'd really like to enjoy one of these at home.

Secrets of Proenneke Cabin

"He gestured vaguely and mentioned a few landmarks along the way, being careful not to make it too easy."

I read a version of the legend of Parceval just before heading off to Alaska this summer. My trip was not legendary, except perhaps in my own mind. The words above however, taken from that story, were with me. The scene is a young Parceval, living in the woods, unaware of Camelot. Two Knights appear and see something in the boy, but only give him enough to awaken his sense adventure.

The attitude toward hiking in Alaska is different than most places I've been. Most parks and wilderness areas will have a variety of warnings and requirements. Where I went in Alaska, there were no permits required, I didn't need to check-in anywhere, if I hadn't initiated contact, they wouldn't have known I was there. There was no signage, no trailheads, no warnings posted.

Part of this is, I'm sure, due to the sheer enormity of the space and the barriers that have to be overcome to get there. Most of the filtering out of people is done by nature. If you manage to get by the mountains, the snow and the freezing water, there are the bears. Let's hope the Alaska Department of Natural Resources isn't thinking that they want to throw you the wolves, or bears, or whatever else might be out there, but they definitely expect you to figure out more for yourself than your average walk in a park.

In Minnesota, before entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you are required to get a permit and watch a video about hanging a bear pack and "leave no trace" camping. When I hiked the Grand Canyon, there were a lot of signs up about dehydration and how it is most common that fit young men are the ones who succumb to it, because they are most likely to think they won't. There was nothing like this for the Lake Clarke Wilderness. There also weren't trails.

There is a sketchy explanation of the a few hikes around the Proenneke cabin area on the NPS website. The hike I originally planned involved walking along the lake shore and, as their description says, "you should be able to discern which drainage will lead to Low Pass because it's the most significant one in the vicinity...". Now, without surveying the entire area, I don't know how you would determine "most significant", worse, as far as I can tell, the directions start off sending you east, when you should go west. After that, they say, "follow the tundra ridge to the pass."

I wanted to make this a loop route, and the Low Pass description says that at some point, that will lead you to the Hope Creek route. That description refers you to the Hope Creek route description, which says that at some point, it will lead to the Low Pass route. That's as good as it gets.

I have some experience with reading topographic maps, but if a pass has a name, I don't know how you find it without that name appearing on the map. I read a few other descriptions written on wilderness guide websites, but I would expect them to be vague, since they want you to pay them for what they know. I thought I had hit pay dirt when I found someone's homemade map, a satellite photo with a big arrow on it that said "Low Pass". I matched that up to my topos and found a wide area that was at 3,000 ft, surrounded by the 5,000 or more foot peaks. This seemed to be "significant".

In case I sound like someone who was proceeding foolishly, I was, but I wouldn't have tried this without someone who had some experience along with me. Luckily I have a brother who lives in Alaska and has worked in the brush. He reviewed my plan and said it was aggressive. Actually he said, "whoa, whoa, whoa". Anyway, we changed the plan to the Hope Creek route. This one proceeds due south from the cabin, following a creek. It even starts out with some trail, but that trail quickly starts to break up.

By the way, I looked for books on hiking in Alaska. I checked guide books, there was less in them than what I found on the NPS site. On the drive to Homer, we stopped at a map shop. Nothing. I found a copy of a National Geographic map of Lake Clarke park on sale on amazon. It was $350. Apparently paper maps are a collector's item. I was hoping maybe one of the float plane operators I talked to would give me a little free info, but most of them hadn't even been there.

Crossing the mountains on the way there gave me some appreciation of what I was getting into. It's a mere 20 miles or so on the map, but looking down on the cliffs and snow covered peaks, I knew I wouldn't be walking out of there if anything went wrong. It was a little bit of a relief when we were greeted on the radio as we flew up into the Twin Lakes valley. We landed right at the cabin, which is just a few feet from the water and were greeted by a rainbow that also came right down to the water. I realized that was something special when I saw how excited the park ranger and float plane pilot were. I would have thought that was something they see every week.

After spending some time in the historic cabin and getting the obligatory picture in the doorway, we tried again to get intel on the hike from our park ranger. We got a couple more details on the Hope Creek route, but it ended with the same "then you get up on the ridges and you can follow them over to Low Pass." She literally waved her hand over the map at this point. Once again, "whoa, whoa, whoa." But that was the best we were going to get.

The actual experience was, as my brother expected, much slower than I expected. If we had known better about where we were going, we might have made it over the ridge and back down the other way. After a day and a half of hiking, we made it to a ridge, and could see where it went over into the next valley. Ridge hiking is a much easier hiking experience than the side of mountain covered with low bush cranberries and blueberries and various lichens. But there were many unknowns beyond that and no reason to challenge them.

When we got back, we met one more park ranger, and that one finally pointed right to a spot on the map and said, "that's Low Pass". It was the next valley over, much more narrow than the one I had found and another 1,000 ft higher. I could also see by looking at where the streams started, that there had to be ridges between them, and by following those high spots, it would lead you right to the ridge we had stood on above Hope Creek.

I didn't actually go there, so don't take these directions as anything close to a suggestion that you go there and follow them. I can't know what was over the high point that I saw. Just before we got to the ridge, we had a choice between a 200 ft mound of boulders and a scree slope. I choose poorly and could have easily lost a lot of progress or been injured sliding down that. Some scree is listed on maps, but most of it isn't. If a description of an Alaskan hike says "This route crosses a couple steep scree slopes", as the Low Pass description does, you should take that very seriously.

There are many things to do around the Proenneke cabin. There is a small camp site right there with metal caches to keep the bears away from your food. You can hike the shore line. There is one rustic lodge on the opposite side of Upper Twin Lake. Port Alsworth is not far away on a large lake with many lodges. Many people fly from there and visit the area for a just a couple hours. I would recommend any or all of those. Whatever you do, don't miss enjoying the incredible scenery.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

In 1493, Columbus took everything he could see

It’s one of my favorite time’s of year again, when people talk about how Columbus ruined everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no big fan of the European take over of what is now called the Americas. I’m also not a fan of bad history. According to the memes that come out this time of year, Columbus invented slavery.

There is no question that the particular brand of slavery that existed from Africa to America and included the natives in the Americas was particularly horrible in human history. There is no question that Christianity supported slavery and it was in turn supported by the Old Testament. It is also unquestionable that slavery has been a part of every civilization. It’s elimination is very recent and very unique. The colonizers that began with Columbus are not unique at all.

Slavery in the Americas began thousands of years before Columbus ever got there. And I’m not talking about the Vikings. Native tribes conquered and enslaved each other. I’m not going to provide links, by the way, since this is too well known to bother. Also well known is the participation of Africans in the African slave trade. None of this makes any of it right. That something has been done throughout human history is not an argument for it being normal, ethical or intractable. People who took slaves were always wrong. They were also products of their environment.

One easily misused statistic is the number of people who died in the centuries following 1492. It was on the level of the Nazi holocaust. Pre-Columbian population figures are a little hard to come by, but deaths were in the millions. We know there were conquistadors sweeping across the southern continent and small colonies moving in along the east coast at this time. But millions of deaths spread across vast stretches of territory that were unmapped by Europeans have to be accounted for. The only sensible explanation is disease.

The Americas were first populated by people crossing the Bering Strait land bridge 10,000 years ago. Generations of living in extreme cold in Siberia and the tundra of the Americas killed off a lot of immunity that people in Europe maintained. Europe and Asia have cows, pigs and horses and constant contact with those animals weeded out anyone not immune to the diseases they carry. When they came back in contact with their cousins that they had parted with so long ago, they brought those diseases with them.

No, I’m not ignoring that this was later done deliberately, but that was much later. Missionaries that gave Indians infected blankets did not exist until colonies were well established. Missionaries can’t exist at all without a strong military presence protecting them. The history of that is also confused and sometimes exaggerated, but it certainly had nothing to do with Columbus.

Neither am I ignoring that by today’s standards, Columbus was a wack job. I recently read “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem”. The title alone grabbed my attention. He never went to Jerusalem, but according to his own diary, his intention for finding a route to India was to enrich Spain and the Catholic Church so they could re-conquer Jerusalem. If you remember, Jerusalem was under Muslim rule at the time. Columbus would out fundamental any fundamentalist of today. And why not? That’s all there was. There was no discussion about freedom of religion, you took the religion of your kingdom, or you got out of there, alive if you were lucky. If the Pope said slavery was okay, it was okay. Martin Luther was only 9 years old. It was a different time that we can barely understand. Having Christians in control of the birthplace of Jesus was vitally important to the survival and future of Columbus’ culture. The idea of Jews at the Wailing Wall, the sound of the Muslim call to prayer and tours of Jesus’ tomb all in one city would be unheard of to him.

Despite his confusion about the size of the earth, Columbus was a decent navigator, he did make contact with another culture, and he did find gold. If you think any of that was easy, read this story about how he was stranded on Jamaica for a year. A few of his men found their way back to Haiti(then called Hispaniola) in what was essentially a canoe. This was also the time he lied to the natives about controlling the sun when he knew of an eclipse that was coming. He did it to gain favors from them. Anyone who tells that story without also telling of how he did it when he was cut off from anything resembling his civilization, is essentially lying by omission.

The above link also mentions Bobadilla. This was another reason I picked up the book. I had heard of a letter that had recently been uncovered listing many crimes of Columbus. You may have heard of it. As I read the book, I kept expecting to hear about these crimes, but they weren’t listed, at least not coming from Columbus. Columbus writes about events going on across the island that were out of his control and that he did not condone. Maybe he could have done more to prevent them.

Instead of entries about thoughtless treatment, I read of how he had to leave some men behind on his first voyage and gave them strict instructions to stick to themselves and not bother the natives. Now, he also took natives with him against their will, so he was no saint. When he returned he found the men he had left behind had fought with the natives, and they (Columbus’ men) had been killed. Getting their killers to describe what had happened of course would have been a challenge.

The history of the rest of what happened during Columbus’ life is, shall we say, muddled. He was told by Spain not to take slaves, but he did anyway, even sending some of them back to Spain. There seemed to be no penalty for this. Even at the time, Ferdinand and Isabella couldn’t figure out what was going on and had to send investigators. The second voyage was definitely a military mission and included priests and farmers who established colonies. Those priests complained that in some of those colonies the slaves were mistreated. To me today, “mistreated slave” is kind of an oxymoron. You’ve already taken someone away from their culture and made them work for free. How is that okay, but there is still a further line that crosses into “cruelty”?

It is hard to tell from the few records we have, but the theme of the book I read was that many of the people who were brought to colonize this new world expected gold to be flowing out of the hills and slaves to bring it to them. When they found out they had to work, and that the “New World” had new diseases, they blamed Columbus for mismanagement. This is when Bobadilla enters the story and puts Columbus in chains.

When the story is told as if everything in Bobadilla’s letter is true, it sounds strange that Columbus was released and allowed to return, although he was stripped of his governorship. It makes more sense when you read accounts of the monarchs who found it strange that Columbus arrived at court in manacles. This was perhaps a shrewd political move by Columbus because the Captain of the ship that took him home offered to remove them. But Columbus wanted his patrons to see how Bobadilla had treated him. I lean more toward the theory that Bobadilla wanted to rule the territory without having had to do all the work of discovering it.

I can hardly summarize a book in six paragraphs and everything I’ve said comes with a disclaimer that the history is incomplete. My intention here is to supply a little more background than a painting from 500 years ago or a scrap of evidence with no context. How we treated the people we called “Indians” in later centuries; cutting their hair, making their language illegal, killing off the buffalo, all of that is inexcusable. It was also supported by our government after we had made a constitution that spoke of freedom and human rights. It was perpetrated by Presidents that we call heroic. Anyone living in the United States today benefits from those policies, excluding of the course many of the descendants of the people who were here first. We would be better off discussing how that affects people alive today than either celebrating or denigrating a man we know little about from 500 years ago.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Least of These

I occasionally review my posts to see if I said something I want to retract. I don't edit out what I said, but have commented on myself a few times. Recently, at the Lake Superior Free Thinkers regular meeting, we had a philosopher, Shane Coultron, speak who corrected me on something I've mentioned now and then. That is, I have said I can't find a similar statement about the Christian idea of "that which you do to me (Jesus), you do to the least of these (i.e. the poor or sick)."

Turns out that is addressed by modern philosophies, it's just not as easy to find in a short concise phrase like it is in the New Testament. Shane gave me several examples:

Utilitarianism - If you are simply adding up happiness and basing choices on increasing it, you would do well to focus on down trodden, poor, sick people. Their happiness rating is lower. This is born out with sociological data, although there are those communities of people with limited means that are quite happy. Utilitarianism does not make broad generalizations about what it takes to be happy. The important application of it here is that if you focus on those who have the most needs, you will make the most difference in increasing their happiness and likewise increase overall happiness for all. This includes the assumption that even if you are well off, it makes you sad that others aren't. Again, plenty of exceptions to that assumption, but they don't matter to the overall score.

But Utilitarianism has other problems, and I don't like defending it too strongly.

I prefer the more subtle assumptions and laws discussed in what is sometimes called Social Contract Theory. The idea that we came out of the jungle and made agreements to act in ways that are mutually beneficial. In this system, ignoring the needs of any group has a cost. If there is not good reason to restrict someone's rights or to not reward them for their contribution, they can reasonably consider the social contract to be broken. As society has advanced, we have created better peaceful means of addressing these grievances, but many remain.

History shows us how this plays out. Marx's analysis of the cycle of cultures working together to increase their wealth, then that wealth becoming concentrated, then revolution, has strong historical data to back it up. We see it happening again now, but we also see more negotiating under way. Hopefully this time around we will acknowledge "the least of these" and find a way to re-establish the contract.

I'll just mention that Shane said Kant's de-ontological ethics also addressed this issue, but I don't find Kant particularly interesting so I leave it up to you to look into that.