THE BACKYARD SANCTUARYNo god is needed; My wife and I will do.
We split and weed, and plant seed.
We trim and choose, and rule our tiny spot,
but not --- like one such other.
Mother Nature framed this scene,
and with her choices will be Queen.
But at least, I see my debt
and live to fill her coffers.It is a special place, our world;
The world of life and persons.
It is our Response and Ability,
to keep it such and More.
And pass it to our future kind,
for ashes soon we be.
For after all, we are a 'food'
in this Great Chain of Being.
Of what shall come hereafter,
we made our contribution,
All photos by GWW
(For the original and added context of these thoughts, see The Nature Religion Manifesto under the category Religion.Stay Safe!)
We are back to school many places in Ohio. I was going ‘to lay low’ for a while, and see how it goes. Being old, and having some lung issues, and being a retired teacher who keeps busy by substitute teaching fairly often, I figured why push it. If the schools have decent plans and the virus is largely kept out, then I would eventually give it a try.
But one of my favorite high schools in the school district I taught for 16 years called me and asked me back for a two week sub job starting the very first day of in-school learning. Our county is Franklin County and it is the most populated county in Ohio. Home of the state capital, The Ohio State University, world headquarters for Nationwide Insurance and the birthplace of Wendy and White Castle hamburgers, we had finally come down off “Red” in our Corona Virus Safety System. “Purple” is the worst, when a county has 6-7 of seven indicators of high spread. Red is next in severity (4-5 of 7) and Franklin had finally dropped back off red to “Orange”, 2-3 indicators of significant spreading; “Yellow” is the next and lowest level. My district planned to go to “a hybrid model”– a mixture of online and limited in-school learning — for orange. I mulled it over, consulted my wife, and then accepted the assignment. A month or two ago, Ohio had 10 to 12 red counties with Franklin on “warning” to go purple. This week we have 6 on red, and they are mostly rural counties. So, there is improvement here in Ohio.
“How long can one just stay at home?” I asked myself. I like teaching, and even subbing which has the interaction with young people but missing much of the work and responsibility (and pay) of a full time position. Our hybrid model brings 40% of students (my estimates) back for in-school instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays and 40% on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is to clean the schools. About 20% of students are choosing a totally online instruction program and assignments are given to the in-schoolers to be done and turned in online on their off days. I wanted to see the return for myself — not just read about it — and be a part of it, a helpful part.
So, this week, when the Tuesday after Labor Day appeared, we started back. It went well. Class sizes were small, students were all in masks and pretty cooperative. The biggest issue was masks worn off the nose and only over the mouth. That will be an issue of ongoing concern I fear. When asked to pull it up and keep it there (for a poorer, urban and somewhat more rowdy school populous as this one) all of them did it and kept it up at least for a while.
Friday of this week came around soon. For a first week of school, and one that had two ‘first days’ — one for each group — so far, all seemed well. I sat on my living room couch, drinking my coffee, and then realized it was 9/11. A rush of emotion came over me.
Nineteen years ago this day, I was early in the first year in a new program at a new school. I was teaching a class of “ED Students”, 7th and 8th graders with emotional problems (“alternative mind sets”, should we now call them?). Kids who have attention issues, hyperactivity, anger, trauma, and what we now understand as autism (usually those more high functioning). Just before students were starting to arrive, I was told that something bad had happened in New York and that I should turn on the television. It never occurred to me then, that maybe I should not turn it on considering the emotional states of my group, but they (and I) rose to the occasion and all went as well as it could on such a shocking day.
Soon, we watched as the second plane slammed into the second tower. We listened to the commentators and discussed it ourselves. I took the lead of course, and tried to provide a convincing and firm assurance that all would be well and that a calm and thoughtful response was what was required from us as a class and a nation. The principal spoke several times over the PA system and then after an hour or almost two, we tried to resume our normal class-scheduled day. The television went off, only to come back on during history class and once or twice elsewhere to get an update. We didn’t learn much math or science that day and I talked a lot, but we did make it through and did so with our emotional dispositions reasonable intact. It was one of the longest days of my life.
Several parts of that day are prominent in my memory, other than the horrific destruction we witnessed by television. First was a comment made by a student. In a class for “special needs” like this one, often there is a “Levels System” to monitor and reward a student’s progress and behavior. “The First Level” is for those students who need the most structure , attention, care and constant supervision because they are experiencing the most difficulty, the most social and emotional “unrest”. Early on that day one of our brighter and more ‘explosive’ boys (13 years old) who had been in special needs for years raised his hand and commented that todayhe felt like he “should be on first level.” I commended him on his self-reflection and said, “Today, I think we all feel that way.” He made it through the day, and did decline to actually receive first level attention but knew it was available.
The second memory was of the eerie quiet in the building, and of being interrupted from our work by the repeated calls over the PA for various small groups of students to gather their belongings and report to the office for dismissal. Their parents were picking them up early; the building was slowly being drained of its students and becoming quieter, more quiet than it already very much was.
So, I sat on my couch Friday morning with coffee in hand and decided I needed to do a variant of my lesson on 9/11. I was in a class where it was appropriate. I reviewed in my mind how the lesson would go. I looked on YouTube for a short video summary of the events in New York of that day nineteen years ago. I found one and was surprised to learn that I had forgotten that a third building in the World Trade Center complex had also collapsed due to falling debris that day, but was evacuated in time due to an order whose source is unknown to this day but was massively life-saving.
I realized I was not happy to be planning or delivering this lesson, but felt obligated to do so. Off I drove to school, anticipating the day and listening to NPR radio, when they aired a report on a survey of the emotional status of Americans and especially teenagers at this point during our current pandemic tragedy. Our emotional health is not good, and especially for young people. Significant rises in reported depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. And the light came on! “One tragedy at a time is enough” I thought! No 9/11 lesson today! I immediately felt relieved.
That is the way the day went. The principal did ask for a moment of silence shortly after 9 am, but in class we focused on getting through the crisis at hand. In my opinion, my student’s lives were enhanced by The Lesson I Never Taught.
“Rock on!” Incredible to think that one of humanity’s first symbolic and representational efforts may have been the excessive and demonstrative shaping of stone hand axes!
Little did Jagger know how ironic it was that in 1972 The Rolling Stones released an album with a hit song — “Rocks Off” — and throughout the concert tour, that paragon of 60’s rock-sex, Micky Mick, kept mumbling in his Brit accent, “rocks off, rocks off.” I was lucky to see them in the Akron Ohio (world headquarters of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.) football stadium called “The Rubber Bowl.” The show opened with a guy named Stevie Wonder and his band and ended with riot police battling concert-goers in the outfield grass area. ‘Those were the days,’ we say, but only rivaled by these current crazy times! So, maybe we have not come very far after all!
Equally, maybe Mick was not so much ‘on the cutting edge.’ There are some curious facts that have led to some curious speculation about Stone Age Hand Axes. In some areas of France disproportionate numbers of these have been found that seem to be meticulously done and show no signs of wear or use! An inordinate amount of these “tools” exhibiting no signs of use and exquisitely and painstakenly finished, what? Some anthropologists and biologists have been led to suggestion these axes may have “risen” to some symbolic value.
Dating back to the Lower Paleolithic era, these tools are preceded in the fossil evidence by only one previous tool technology associated withour Homo hablisancestors. Homo hablis was likely to have been between 3 to 4 feet tall (100 to 130 cm) and weighted 40 to 70 lbs (20-40 kg). Homo hablis still spent time in the trees. It is suspected they traveled and lived in groups of up to 70 individuals. It is the first of the Genus, Homo, and evidence suggests its appearance is around 3 million years ago (mya).
The Acheulean Ax is found with the evidence for Homo erectus in most of Africa, some of Europe, and southwest Asia. Larger than hablis, its height was 4 to 6 feet (145-185 cm) and weighed up to 150 lbs (70 kg). It was the first human-like species to exhibit a flat face and walk with a modern gait. Less hair, also. Probably the first to use fire and hunt in groups, and the first of our ancestors to move beyond Africa about 2 mya.
These are our guys and gals. They found themselves driven to shape stone in an effort to impress each other.
All the above are Hominids, the Taxonomic Family of all Great Apes. That includes Orangutan, Gorilla, the Genera Pan which is Chimps and Bonobo, and the Genera Australopithecus (all extinct) and Homo which now includes only we modern Humans as remaining. Gorillas branched off in the vicinity of 9 mya; Pan around 6 mya.
Australopithecus evolved in eastern Africa about 4 mya and was significantly bipedal. It was probably the first to use and make tools to a limited extent, both of stone and animal bone. They largely lived in the trees, though this is still debated. They are believed to be our direct ancestors, to have evolved into Homo hablis.
BUT, BACK TO THE STONES! How exceptional is this? Not very, in nature’s terms. Many animals, including the human animal, build artifacts and even their bodies, to ‘prove’ their worthiness. That’s what a lot of males are ‘in to’: the Peacock and the Peahen, the male Bower bird and the female. It can be a very expensive effort, in terms of time and energy; but it is what it takes in many species to keep their kind going. “I want it, I want it”, they seem to say, without ever really saying it.
Biologists call this Sexual Selection and it usually involves males ‘showing off’ to gain the favor of a female. Of course, in many other species, males simply fight, even if ‘only’ ritually, other males for the dominant mating role.
There is speculation that processes akin to Sexual Selection, involving extravagant and excessive Ritual and expenditures of energy, may account for Various Human Practices—–including Religion.
Well, my metaphysical speculations hit a high point in The Details Revised post. Many readers will be happy to hear that ‘my thirst has been quenched’ and we can return to more mundane topics. But first (!), I need to think about what was there said. After all, “Strange Talk” should be made “PLAIN TALK” for that series, or at least what best can be done.
I write this follow-up as much for myself as anyone. Our MetaPhysical situation has always been a strange one, so to write a recap of my position for “clarity’s sake” is as necessary as it may be unattainable. Here goes.
The Infinite Mind
Well, surely this gets me off to the wrong start, the odds are against me “making sense” of an “infinite mind.” Yet, Physics does have a traditional place for this idea! Physicist Sean Carroll* makes this clear in his use of Simone Pierre Laplace’s famous thought experiment ‘commonly’ known as “Laplace’s Demon.” Laplace knew Newton’s Theories better than Newton himself, contends Carroll, because he was born a generation after Newton and studied and thought thoroughly and solely in the Newtonian tradition. The French thought of Laplace as “France’s Newton” and he contended that this Newtonian Point of View assumed a Grand Intelligence that existed outside of the universe and ‘gazed’ at it knowingly and dispassionately.
“The Demon” was able to know the position and the velocity of all the particles of the universe at any single instant. That indeed was an infinite capacity that yielded an infinite payoff: Knowledge of the particle’s positions For All Time, past and future! And moreso, as if that was necessary, this knowledge rendered the Idea of Time irrelevant. Since all was known at once to this Infinite Intelligence, Time was really not a basic part of it. So, No Time, and Everything Worth Knowing about these participles was known at that instant to this “Mind.” It was a Complete Determinism, and if you should happen to feel that The Future existed, it was all locked in and nothing was new about it! Many of his commentators (physicists and philosophers), then and now, thought it frightening and so the infinite intelligence became known as “Laplace’s Demon.”
It is worth noting that our access to this exulted Perspective occurs only through Mathematics. Though the mathematical relations were not all that complex in Newton’ s time, they surely represented a New Paradigm and a reframing of the old problem of motion both in the “heavens” and here at home. Today, some highly abstract and very complicated math is almost entirely the means to our understanding of the modern physic’s world. “Picturing it” in our normal everyday categories does not work, it is contended.
Physics does take seriously the universe it presents us (and so do I), and often also acknowledges its Paradoxical Character. Carroll makes clear to us that even among physicists there is great disagreement about how to think about, especially, the Quantum Mechanical Theory that they all agree is “accurate” or “true.” Carroll says his favorite is The Multiple Universe Proposal, that Q-Mech works because there are…?
But even for the classical Newtonian Mechanics, its implications were controversial. Laplace’s Demon was a product of that theory’s implications extended beyond our planet and Solar System to the universe at large. Carroll tells us that there never was, nor will there ever be, a mind capable of knowing enough information about the particles of the entire universe, at one moment, and also having the computational power necessary to analyze it. That if we think of that mind as a computer, it would “have to be a computer as big as the universe itself”, he says!
The value of “Laplace’s Demon” was always the point it made “in principle” about our metaphysical situation. Physics has shown us something “true” about the universe that is very disruptive to much of what we also want to believe is “true”. So, don’t blame only me for my “strange talk” and lack of clarity!
A Finite Mind
But if we play along with this idea of The Infinite Mind and The Universe it presents to us, we then have an interesting contrast that can clarify Our Predicament as “Finite Minds.” What might be our limitations, for surely they exist?
If that expansive mind understood the universe as sub-atomic particles and a quantum wave, then A More Limited Mind such as Ours “sees it and understands it” in a more limited yet still effective way. Why would it still be effective? Why not totally illusion?
…..It Is Still A Perspective
The Finite Mind would still be a perspective on the world, but a more limited one. It is, therefore, grounded and not just illusion. It has a limited scope and is not universal in its purview. It is “an innocuous-seeming but secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole”, writes Carroll.* It does not have the capacities of the Infinite Mind to absorb all the data and process it, so it must Economize and Rationalize. As a Limited Perspective it must only respond to some things as “stimuli” and not to others, and those are what we call “The Information” that is pertinent to it (contends philosopher Dan Dennett). Limitation is the ability to be automatically Selective! And surprisingly, that becomes A Very Good Thing because Why Should We Be Only Interested In The Most Universal Perspective On Things?
…..It Is From A Different Position
No longer would a Mind have the entire universe AsIts Object and therefore ‘stand’ outside the universe to understand it and view it all. AFinite Mind is within the Universe and is, therefore, a Participant in it. First, this means it has more limited Objects apparent to its limited Point of View. Second, a finite mind also has Larger Things of which it is a part. It must function in both of these contexts. Ultimately, the largest context is that of the physic’s world, but there may be other mediate contexts. Persons function in their own ways, but also in the ways of all Biological Creatures, and then finally as physical objects of chemistry and physics. For the Finite Mind to be Effective and therefore Real, it must maintain a variety of compatibilities.
There is even the possibility that from a redefined Religious and Moral Perspective a Finite Mind participates in these larger structures. Morality is our participation in, what I have called, The Human Social Organism. Humans are a herd species by design. This is true not only biologically but culturally. “Persons” are formed in a society and are intrinsically connected to other persons even if they are directly removed from their immediate company.
Religion can be our sense of our intrinsic connection to the universe and to reality itself. As much as we modern, secular, educated individuals have learned to appreciate (and dread)our own irrelevance and insignificance to “things” in the broadest sense, it is not completely true! To think and feel ourselves as irrelevant is to, once again, fall prey to confusion. We are not removed from ‘the world’ and gazing at it dispassionately, we are participants in it and full of passions and poignant with a sense of the direction to go and of activity worth accomplishing. This can be our new found religious sense!
…..It Creates A Phenomenal World
The World as It Exists to Physics is not immediately Apparent or Understood to a Finite Mind. Atoms, sub-atomic particles, quantum waves are hidden to it by Perceptions of its own. Things Look Different to us!
Our scope as minds is limited by Our Size and Our Duration, not to mention geographic and historical traditions. Atoms and particles behave far quicker than we do and are much smaller. Finite Minds live in worlds with “Objects of Their Own.” We are well aware ofour world of Macroscopic Objects, but also consider that of the paramecium. It is in most directly Designed to be aware of its other little competitors, consumers, and food stuffs; when a bulldozer covers over its wooded wetland to prepare for a new housing flat, it will only very indirectly and obliquely have a sense of that monstrous machine and the consequences of it. A Finite Mind has a “Phenomenal World” composed of the objects it is immediately aware of, and surrounded by, in its own terms. In biology, this has been referred to as “the Umwelt” (the self-centered world) of a plant or animal by biologist Jakob von Uexkull in the early 20th century and later adopted into Communication Theory.
…..It Is a Designed Object
But living things are not the only objects we can think of as having a phenomenal world.Computers are designed with great sophistication today. They play winning chess against chess masters and write music in the vein of Bach and Beethoven, and can more competently ‘understand’ language. If a computer attains the point of “seeming” to have sufficient Personality, then will it be a Person? That seems like a totally redundant question. I mean, how do you you known that I am not a computer? I sure seem to be a Person, but am I really?
But to defer the answer to that question, the broader issue is the similarity of a Finite Mind and Any Designed Object. We design and make many functional objects. Each is given its own Limited Perspective of ‘the world.’ Each uses that to Function appropriately and to have a Structure organized to do that. Hell, even my door lock carries out its function rather well! But in the terms of physics, my door lock, and myself, have no particular or significant individuality in the great causal background presented to us by that science.
But clearly, here we are. We are a ‘seeming’ whose reality seems hard to deny. If we are to accept the significance of an Infinite Mind, as physic’s would suggest, then therefore we should accept ourselves as more limited Minds with a world and a mode of operation worth regarding.
Recently there has been much talk about our conference’s decision (The Big Ten) to not play football this fall due to the pandemic. Most of it has been criticism, even anger. Conspiracy theories are common. How could we shut down football when Notre Dame, the SEC, and others are continuing to plan to play? In Ohio we are allowing some high school football, leaving it to individual school districts and leagues to decide, but the major colleges won’t play (the MAC conference is also shut down). How does that follow? That argument— “they’re playing”—may be a little like saying, “look, the guy in front of me just ran that red light, therefore I should follow!”
Hey, I’m a Buckeye fan and I was very much hoping to watch them play. We have the best player in the country, and Coach Day said this could be a once-in-a-lifetime great team. It is probably not going to happen and that is very disappointing. Further, the league officials did not make clear their specific reasons for closure. It was left rather vague.
I can understand the disappointment and even some disagreement, but not to this level! We should all really know by now, that this pandemic is a mess; if you don’t know that, then you are part of the problem. You are one of the reasons there will be no Big Ten fall sports! You doubted the scientists and doctors. You questioned Governor DeWine and Dr. Acton’s decisions. You did not, and may still not be, fully complying.
League officials did give some clues to their decision. The Columbus Dispatch reported (8/20 “Virus curve, testing issues problematic for Big Ten”) that league officials in interviews with the paper reported their concerns about community spread. Prior to that, the paper reported a league medical officer’s concerns that there was no national policy; no effective national testing or contact tracing, no reasonable and universal masking standards. He suggested that the situation was a chaos in which the decision to play would be no more than a roll of the dice.
That is correct. Imagine game day here in Columbus, and in Ann Arbor, East Lancing and western Pennsylvania, Iowa and Nebraska (Big10 country). No fans at games, and bars full. Neighbors gathering round TV sets, families, friends all together and rooting, shouting, drinking, high-fiving, and sharing food. Don’t even think about the teenagers in the campus dorms. It would be a royal cluster contagion in too many cases. Too many, as has now been proven, would not behave responsibly. The virus would spread.
So, unlike what I hear from many of my friends and family, who are determined that it is always about money and law suits, I believe that maybe these institutions of higher learning were holding on to something higher. The Big Ten felt that they should not go along with this mess. They are supposed to be about education, knowledge, and enlightened behavior. Maybe this time, they chose that over football. Go Bucks!
We are surrounded by Information! A modern, socialized, healthy, individual is incapable of making a ‘pure and simple’ observation. All our observations are culturally loaded and therefore informative to us in many of our predisposed ways. Biologist Jerry Coyne disagrees and maintains an outdated allegiance to what is called “Empiricism.” (http://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/07/27/more-on-scientism-and-ways-of-knowing/)
I’m sitting in my living room and observe that “my couch is burgundy.” First, what is a “couch”? That is a loaded term, and I do not know when it became popular and useful. It designates a kind of “chair,” but no kind that many human beings would recognize or have used in the past. Maybe some of the few very elite ancient Egyptians and Romans had used something like our modern “couches” and would have more or less recognized it and understood it if standing in front of one today. But even today, there may be some cultures to which such a ‘chair’ would be quite alien.
And “burgundy.” Even I have to pause and think a moment, “what kind of color is that?” I’m not that good with color words: “fuchsia”, “chartreuse”, even “maroon” tend to confuse me and I have to think of their relation to more common colors to “picture” them. “Burgundy” is a kind of purple, or brownish red; but how different is it from maroon?
Words like “burgundy” and “couch” work like that. Individually, they have no clear reference to any one obvious thing in our environment that they “correspond to.” In fact, I’m contending that all our words work that way and that is why it is a myth to think that “observations” can be individual and simple and context free. Every observation is loaded with context and culture, that is how they “makes sense.” Culture directs our senses. Any one particular thing does not naturally jumping out at us from the crowd of all the things that naturally surround us. Our language is a network of contrasts and we use all these distinctions to identify any one thing “meaningfully.” It is our Culture and Society that train us, socialize us, to to live a particular way and notice and care about particular things.
Cultural Relativism and Biological Orientations
But here I am obviously getting into some trouble. I’m a Cultural Relativist so far, but now I am going to take this a step deeper. Some things do “naturally jump out at us.” Take a bird in flight or a young bird learning to fly. They almost automatically “know how.” It is built into their physical structure. Flying for them is a “know-how;” it is not a “knowing that” it involves many aeronautical principles and laws of physics.
Recently we have been watching some Wrens in our backyard nest in a bird house. The young birds are now starting to spill out of the nest, and I think “spill” is an accurate term. We have so far found three young birds on the ground and unable to fly. Yet, we see them flapping their little wings as if working at it, and I am trying to follow their progress. They are ‘biased’ toward flight. There is no “observation” that is not oriented.
Human infants, likewise, are biologically prone to respond to human faces, suckle, and learn language. These basic biological structures orient human infants. Later in life adult humans are also oriented in their observation and behavior by our cultural institutions. They are know-how. Our traditions of Art, Science, Religion, Law, Politics, Entertainment, and the Crafts, orient us daily. These Paradigms do change but it is a process more complicated than “observation”, “hypothesizing” and “testing,” the so called Empirical Method.
Dr. Coyne has a favorite example of this empirical method as he envisions it in its broadest form. After all, he contends it to be the basis of All Real Human Knowledge! His example is The Plumber facing a leak. He/she observes it, speculates, tries a solution. Did it work? And this is well enough, but no plumber brings to ‘the plumbing situation’ a claw hammer, nails, or an electric sander. They bring their plumber’s wrench and new washers. They bring their life time experience of plumbing going as far back as their toilet training and their daily experience of leaning over a sink and brushing their teeth. Plumbing is as much a “know-how” as it is a “knowing that” a wax toilet mount is needed or plumber’s putty. We all are far from any pristine innocence —and the observations that would bring— about the workings of plumbing.
(Getting ‘deep’ again. I really don’t think it is too ponderous. Only about 25 paragraphs long! And its point is, our most important kind of knowledge is not science, it is our knowledge ofthe ways we Respectfully Participate in our society and the other societies we encounter. “Science” is no slouch, but it is not our primary way to be as social and cultural creatures.)
‘What the hell are we to do in this world?’ “Scientism” is an important topic because it ‘gets the ball rolling’ on this entire issue. “Scientism” is traditionally a criticism of the idea that science makes the basic contribution to this discussion. These believers in science think that science, “broadly viewed”, is the onlykind of knowledge we, thinking humans, really have.
Therefore, if we want to ‘get a handle on what our life is all about’ we should (and do) practice science (“broadly construed”). I will add that this belief in science — in a more demanding form — contends that onlythe professional sciences (“science narrowly viewed”) are knowledge of the world. I think the two views stand or fall together, and they are mistaken.
But, the term “Scientism” now has two uses. One, Coyne’s side, is “yes, science is the only true knowledge.” This is “scientism” in its good sense, he says. Two, “Scientism” as a pejorative term standing for the above as an overestimation of scientific knowledge. My view is the latter, we have another form of knowledge that is more important than science. It is this other form that is more basic and gets us on a better track to figure out our situation in this crazy world of ours, I believe!
Ironically, I will use organisms, biology, and developmental considerations to illustrate the problem with this overly ambitious estimation of science’s contributions. Biologist Coyne has constantly challenged his opponents to present one case of legitimate knowledge that is not science knowledge. He does that again in his post called “Boudry on scientism and ‘ways of knowing” (7/29/20) on his blog. Boudry is a philosopher who recently wrote an article similar to Coyne’s expansive pro-science position. (http://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/07/27/more-on-scientism-and-ways-of-knowing/)
First, I do believe that the scientific view of the world is a remarkable and powerful perspective. Science has largely relieved us of the idea of gods (in any traditional sense) and angels, souls, fairies, nymphs, along with ‘places’ like heaven, hell, Valhalla and Nirvana. Science has made possible or facilitated all our remarkable new technology —computers, cell phones, rocket-ships, x-rays, etc.
Coyne contends “science, broadly construed” is “the empirical method.” It is to “observe, hypothesize, and test.” Coyne is emphatic about the significance of his qualification, science, “in the broad sense.” It includes a plumber who is seeking to fix a leak. She observes the problem, speculates on its source and cause, then tests a solution and observes the result. This traditionally is thought to be a very piecemeal process, with observation being independent of speculation (‘just pure looking’ with no preconceptions) and testing as equally “stand alone” and thus attaining an “objective” result. Also, the process seems to be very conscious and self-conscious: ‘I will just look, I will then speculate, I will try out a solution.’
Observe—-Hypothesize—-Test: The Empirical Method
I will follow a very prominent school in philosophy that argues against “Empiricism” as an accurate understanding of how we “know.” My example of knowledge that is Not scientific is Our Knowledge of a Language.
We Do Not Learn a Language Empirically!
It is a miss-use of the term “observe” to say that a pre-linguistic child “observes” the world. Our use of the term “observation” usually signifies an experience too clearly demarcated, too specific to apply in this case. An infant lying on its back and kicking about its legs and waving its arms is just starting out on the road toward de-markation — marking off things in the world. Why, this child does not even distinguish itself from the external world! It’s own ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ are a mystery to it that are not being “observed” by it, but probably more accurately described as vague and fleeting aspects of a very vague experience. We should not confuse our perceptions as language users for that of the infant’s.
But the infant does experience some things with more clarity. It is very attuned to forms of its own comfort and discomfort. It needs to eat and desires to suckle. The comfort of eating and closeness to its mother are immediate to it. Faces have been shown to be unusually significant and attractive to their attention. And they do seem to crave human attention and nurturence. They are not “blank slates” when coming into the world but have inbuilt biological orientations and abilities. Language-learning and language-use is one of these abilities. It is a system of skills ready to be specified (French, English, Latin) and deployed.
It is equally misplaced to think of young language-learners creating hypotheses. After all, they have no language to frame such proposals. They are beingconditioned in the use of initial words, relying solely on imitation and reinforcement. “MaMa” is reinforced positively even when said ‘to’ the father, at first. Eventually, of course, its use is pared down more appropriately. It could be said the child tests, but we all recognize it is not responsible for or even aware of the test or it’s result. It is not something the child is “doing” in a straightforward way, but “doing” unconsciously and automatically in a biological sense. A child learns a language more like a young bird learns to fly, not a like a plumber fixing a leak. Infants and birds don’t observe, hypothesize, testwhen learning a language or learning flight.
A More Holistic Approach
If Empiricism is not the way to think of knowing a language, what is the alternative? It is a more holistic approach in which a system of skills and in-built structural features (inherent connections between the knower and its environment) “kick in”. They are practiced and then mastered. This transition from practice to mastery can be seen as a rather dramatic and even sudden event, somewhat of a “leap”, but there are “steps” to its acquisition so “gradualism” is not completely foregone. In language-learning, this is the burst of acquisition of words and sentence-use that is shown in the data for those early years and even months. Consider a young bird, how long does it take it to learn to fly rather well? Is it an afternoon, two days? It’s a skill built to be acquired quickly because the bird’s life depends on it.
This “holistic approach” to language acquisition and use, as a “system of interrelated skills,” is understanding language as “rule-guided behavior.” This kind of ‘action’ is really the basis of our lives as ‘Persons’, as much as, and even more so than, the physics and chemistry we also know is essential to our existence as physical objects. These two words are in scare quotes because they are new things, emerging at this level of events. Rule-guided action must be a level of design —a level of complexity— in addition to, but compatible with, the lawful behaviors displayed by those sciences.
When computers are designed to perform a task, a “competence model” for that task is formulated by the designers. It is the rules by which that behavior is preformed accurately by humans. Those rules are then built into the structure of the computer’s many layers of processing. It is how computers ‘understand’ words spoken to them or ‘decides’ on a winning chess move.
Importantly, Professor Coyne emphasizes science as our true method for “knowledge of the external world.” My point about our knowledge of language could then be taken, by contrast, to be knowledge of our internal world as language users, persons, and societal members. Rule-guided action is the basis for all Our Representational Endeavors. Our Representations include not only language but also the universe as displayed to us in our science, art, morality, politics, the crafts and even religion (in a way).
Helen Keller Learns Language
The famous story of the experience of Helen Keller is often used to suggest Language-Learning is not an Empirical or piecemeal process. Keller’s progress was documented by her teacher Anne Sullivan and reprinted in Keller’s autobiography and retold on stage and screen in The Miracle Worker. Keller was, of course, a blind child with no hearing. At the age of seven (1887), she was very unruly and able to communicate only rudimentaly with several people through a small number of self-improvised gestures and noises. In her book she described her early experience as “at sea in a dense fog.”
It was then that Anne Sullivan was hired to live at the house and begin the training of Helen in behavior and sign language. She signed words with her fingers into the palm of Helen’s hand, constantly and repeatedly. “I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed,” Keller later wrote. “I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation.”
Within a month or two, Helen had her famous break through. One morning at the pump, cold water was spilling over her hand as Sullivan signed W-A-T-E-R into the palm of Helen’s other. Sullivan reports that it seemed…
“to startle her…she stood transfixed…she spelled “water” several times…Then dropped to the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “teacher.” All the way back to the house she was highly exited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary. The next morning she got up like a radiant fairy. She flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness….Everything must have a name now.”
The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller; quoted from An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer
Helen had ‘stepped inside the world of language,’ we might say. She had caught on to its rule that all must have a name and soon would also quickly acquired its rules of grammar. She eventually learned to speak. She learned to joke and to persuade. In her life she went on to play a significant public role as advocate for the disabled, trade unions, suffrage and socialism.
Knowing and Learning: A different Model
This is the alternative model for learning. Human beings never start out, or continue, in an activity with an unbiased observation. This is expressed in the slogan, “all observation is theory laden.”
Socialization is training in the adoption of a society’s points of view. So,what is known and what is learned is first and foremostwhat has worked for and been of interest to that society. Knowledge is mastering those rule-governed behaviors, like language-use, hunting, farming, child-rearing, cooking, social etiquette.
Societies derive their perspectives by naturally selected modifications of our biologically inherited needs and outlooks. Alteration of these views, or”paradigms”— as they were called in the intellectual “uproar” surrounding this issue in the 1970’s and 80’s, — is not the result of new observations, but new paradigms of thought and perspective that bring with them a shift in “the facts.” New facts may now be considered relevant, old facts may now be reinterpreted. An issue is re-framed; an old problem is restated in a new way.
What made Isaac Newton the genius he was was not some new observation; it was his revision of the statement of the problem. He tied together the Movement of The Planets with the falling of An Apple from its Tree. He decided that what needed to be explained was the change in motion. “Inertia” was his new concept that made all the difference: what is in motion will stay in motion, what is at rest will stay at rest. No longer will it be presumed that “the natural state” of all objects is rest. And interestingly, this truth of inertia is counter-intuitive, contrary to our everyday experience and observation! Here on earth, all moving objects tend to stop.
Some theorists (the Deconstructionists) argue that issues of social power play a significant role in our social knowledge structures, even if “rational” considerations are still in play. There is some truth to this, but I believe that “rational considerations” can still be seen to play an important role in the history of most societies and especially, hopefully, our own. Our social and cultural history is The Narrative of how we have gotten better and what prospects the future holds for us as a society; just as The Personal Narrative ofeach of us is the story of where they have come from, how we survived, and –hopefully– made the most of it. In each case, the logic of This Narrative Form contains values and a future where hope is the desideratum.
Science is the second most important form of knowledge. Our knowledge in Human Cultural Practices is primary to it. Our knowledge of Language, for example, is acquired and used in a context in which “observation, hypothesizing and testing” are thoroughly oriented toward language mastery. We Participate in the learning and use of Language; we do not stand apart from it to know it from The Outside! We do not “observe” it, or make independent speculations about it, or “test” it as if there was some other solution that might be better. We get “inside” it and find out who we are and what the world is inherently in relation to us and from our social and cultural perspective.
So, if you want to figure out “What the hell life is all about?”, don’t stand off and study it “objectively.” Participatein as many of our cultural forms as possible: read some great novels; learn some science and history; experience some variety of religion, poetry and visual art; immerse yourself in being healthy in your family and interpersonal relations; work hard at a useful job. Then, taking as much of this into consideration as you can, weave it together and honestly construct a Narrative of your life and yourself that includes the way society should be for you –that “self” you have created– to prosper.Then, you will share that narrative with other persons, at various times and in various pieces. That is our “way of knowing” that is prior to, and primary to, our scientific knowledge of “the external world.”
(The Flags ofThe Philippines, China and Japan. See below for the symbolism of each. Here at NatieRel, we believe that symbols are as valid a Representation of Our World as are Atoms.)
I am happy to report to my readers that the Nature Religion Connection has been getting some persistent interest lately from our Asian sisters and brothers. Welcome new readers! Please comment, if you are inclined at all; I would love to hear your thoughts, reactions or questions concerning particular posts.
These are difficult times all over. Times when we, as a Planet, need to pull together around our massive mutual interest and move forward together! Here at the naturereligionconnection.org, we believe that All Cultures are of Great Value and each is a rich source of Information about what it is to be a Human Person.
Philippine: The eight rays of the sun stand for its eight provinces. The three stars represent the country’s three main island groups. The triangle stands for liberty, equality and fraternity. The flag is flipped over so that the red bar is at top when the country is at War!
China: The red represents The Revolution. The five stars stand for the unity of the Chinese people with the leadership of the Communist Party. This flag was first hoisted over Tiananmen Square in 1949 to announce the formation of a new Chinese nation.
Japan: This symbol is known as the “circle of the sun”. Its origin is in the saying of the Japanese people concerning their own country, “the land of the rising sun.” In Japanese mythology the House of the Emperor is said to be of direct descent from the the Shinto sun goddess.
As I write this I am becoming acutely aware of the historic rivalries and grave events that have transpired between these three nations. May our modern times and our new enlightenment bring acceptance, responsibility, atonement and forgiveness. May we work together with deep respect to solve our vast world issues and live up to our role as citizens of This One Planet.
Sorry, in this time of woe, to seem happy. I apologize, BUT STILL! On Sunday, 21 visitors checked into naturereligionconnection.org and viewed 52 posts. That is a new single day high. And yes, I am feeling a little buzz from it! That may seem modest –those numbers, but remember, Modesty is a Virtue!.. (?). and … All good things start somewhere!… Every journey starts with a … “Glory lies in the attempt to reach one’s goal and not in reaching it” (The Mahatma)…You must learn to walk before you run…etc…
Also, cool is we had recent views from Morocco, France and Thailand! This is a “Connection!” “We are all in this together”, as we are now saying here in Ohio, though in reference to The Virus! And we truly are, in many ways!
So, expect a few more post in coming days; I have Time (an emergent property!) on my hands! Rock on, Readers, and avoid that Virus!!!!
I realize the holidays were rough,but really! Spring is approaching and it is time to get back into the naturereligionconnection.org swing. I am cook’n over here in Central Ohio, and all I get are a few souls wandering the internet from Turkey and South Africa! Well, Welcome to them— and how cool! — and maybe they are more astute than some of my more ‘loyal’ followers (like Mark and Rita and Rick!) Busted!
I have become Big on the legitimacy of the Idea of “Response and Ability”; wow, think of that, “Responsibility” at its core is our awareness that we have an ability to respond. No other animal Reflects on its response ability. So, I am definitely looking for a big readers’ Response because you do have the Ability!
And speaking of responsibility, a rising theme here at The Connection is the knowledge that has been ‘down loaded’ into our human environment. Not “the” environment of physics or chemistry, but our living and human environment, there is a big difference. Language and the Conventions of Human Communication, our various Institutions of Art, Education, Science, Religion and Politics, contain a storehouse of knowledge and implication — rules about “what it is” and “how to be” a Person. Of these “rules” and response abilities, we are only vaguely and randomly aware, currently. Science knows the world theoretically; these other “institutions” (from the Latin, statuere: to cause to stand up) ‘know’ and carry on The Practice of Personhood (practical knowledge).
(The “rules” of personhood cause us to stand up — statuere — or stand out from the background of biology and the hard physical sciences. Famous Greek statues: Discobolus by Myron form 450 BC. and the Artemision Bronze or God from the Sea, recovered from the Aegean and thought to be either Zeus or Poseidon poised to throw his thunderbolt or trident.)
Some of the Hot New Pieces you may have missed are the following. The Nature Religion Manifesto: a short piece and crudely poetic. What Connects the Universe: another short piece that tries to suggest an alternative to a universe with onlyCauses as the explanation for All That Happens. Freedom 5: Reasons in Persons, a longer piece with great photos (the Javanese Flying Cucumber) and 10 cartoon! It fleshes out the idea of the Practices of Personhood. Also, an interesting article on the current American political situation by Thomas Friedman. Ya, gotta love cave-person cartoons.
Helping to clarify “The Rulez” for Persons — The Nature Religion Connection!