Friday, September 25, 2009

Existentialism and Nuance on the American River

I don’t write a lot about my work in this space. But today I start classes for a new degree.[1] In light of that, I thought I’d post this essay I wrote for the Ichthyology class that put me on this path. I am a river modeler[2] so it made sense to me to take a fish class as part of my PhD course work. It was probably my favorite class I took, and, so, here I am getting ready to dive back into academia one more time.

A Walk Down the River

It was an enormous confluence of fish going nowhere, but headed there resolutely. This was my reaction to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of salmon backed up behind the closed gate of the Nimbus fish hatchery. Nearby a father asked his rambunctious but intrigued sons “What if that was your life, all you wanted to do was swim upstream?” I pondered what he might be trying to teach at that moment. Perhaps that his sons were lucky to have longer and more meaningful lives or maybe that resolve and sacrificial, single minded purpose were admirable traits. I suspect, however, his comment may not have had a precise pedagogical intent but may have rather been an articulated reflection on his own mortality. I allowed myself the smug fantasy that one of the boys turned to his dad and quoted Sartre or Camus in an attempt to actually respond to the deeply existential query. Existential themes, however, did appear to be the topic of conversation as visitors seemed inspired by single minded fortitude but reminded of the brevity and futility of cyclical existence.

The Nimbus fish hatchery was designed to mitigate habitat losses that resulted from the construction of the Nimbus dam. A large fenced structure that spans the width of the river “guides” the fish to a ladder where they back up behind a gate. Periodically the gate is opened and several fish proceed up the ladder to holding tanks where they are allowed to “ripen,” “anesthetized” and “harvested[3].” Eggs and sperm are removed and mixed and the subsequent fresh water life stages of the anadromous fish occur in large concrete tanks. A path proceeded past the visitor center and tanks full of densely packed juvenile fish whose synchronized movements were more reminiscent of shoaling behaviors than anything that might seem preparatory for life as a wild salmon or steal head[4].

Half a mile downstream the river was still thick with fish near its banks. I made my way down to the river edge where a tall, lanky heron had taken its position over viewing the buffet before it. I waited patiently with the bird, for a perfect picture, which I proceeded to take without film (strangely symbolic of the futile struggle I was observing). In my anthropomorphization[5] I suspected that the heron was not happy to share its bank with me. But it was far more patient than I and soon had its fishing location to itself.

The view a little further downstream was the most poignant. Both the dam and the mass of fish came into view together, standing in striking counter distinction to each other. Both were awe inspiring. The dam was massive and symmetrical, bearing a geometric simplicity and representative of human ingenuity. The fish were complex, chaotic and organic on an enormous and moving scale and bore the mantle of temporal priority. A placard about the dam revealed that this was a Bureau of Reclamation structure. I was mildly relieved to learn that it was not the Corps of Engineers’. But the specific facts of this system were incidental, since the Corps is the managing entity in a number of very similar situations. It is the Corps after all that brings us the absurdity of the Columbia River fish trucking program. But this is not distant mockery because, for me, the Corps is not a ‘they’ but a ‘we’.

Reflections on a Managing Institution

I am part of a new Corps of Engineers. Not the institutional “New Corps” with Seven Points of Stewardship, environmental objectives and green rhetoric, but a much more organic entity that is the inevitable result of an organization that expects 50% turnover in the next 10 years. These ‘old guard’ positions are being backfilled by scientists and engineers whose training postdated our nation’s development of a broad environmental consciousness. My colleges and I joke about making careers out of undoing what our predecessors in the organization have done. But there is a quiet dissonance as we continue to manage their legacy looking for incremental, environmental gains while bearing the disdain of environmental groups and negotiating a poor funding environment for restoration projects.[6]

A compelling philosophical argument could be made that the city of Sacramento should not exist given the flood risks of living at the confluence of two enormous, flashy, mountain fed rivers. But, empirically, it does exist and the Nimbus dam provides it some protection. Further argument could be made that flood protection of this sort is actually detrimental to urban areas because it creates a false security of extended periods of safety while only exposing them to infrequent but very large and catastrophic events. This, however, is a nuanced discussion and therefore, like most nuance, not really in play in public discourse. Therefore, we have inherited an impasse between humans and fish. Our predecessors overcame the inertia of dynamic, unpredictable natural systems. Our inertia to overcome is social dependence on engineered systems despite the growing evidence of their detriment. This is more poignant for me since social dependence on engineered systems is not an abstract problem someone else has. Not able to afford a house in Davis, we have made our home behind a West Sacramento levee.[7] [8]

[1] #5 for those keeping score at home.
[2] I construct numerical models of natural systems…but that does not keep my wife from telling people I model professionally.
[3] This is one of the problems with the hatchery ‘solution.’ by only propagating genetic material from a few founding individuals we create a genetic bottleneck and artificially induce genetic drift and decrease allele diversity (making the population less versatile to respond to changing conditions and disease).
[4] I cut my favorite line here. it was something about being able to purchase fish food for $0.25 and feeling seedily voyeuristic watching the fish frenzy as I threw it in…like some sort of red light district peep show.
[5] I am not sure what the verb for anthropomorphism is.
[6] I cut the following section here because it struck me as bitter. But here it is: ‘Incremental gain’ is the rally call of stewardship minded individuals on the inside. We are still in a phase of institutional reform where the low fruit of obsolete dam removal and structure re-operation are available and helpful for the establishment of precedent. However, population pressures and climate trends give the Nimbus dam an excellent chance of outliving me. The Corp’s will always do what it is funded to do; anything else would literally be a federal offense. So we plug along, looking for our incremental gains, marketing restoration work to the power brokers and deep pockets and working for small, achievable paradigm shifts. In a sense it is a compromised and resigned environmentalism, with little hope of major impact on the Nimbus situation in the near future. For this we are often not thought of as full partners in the environmental movement. But I have always been more interested in action than ideology, and like my position on the inside for exacting meaningful change and synergistic solutions to the greatest extent possible.
[7] This is no longer true. We took advantage of the housing market crash to move to Davis…mostly to unify our lives…but getting out from behind the levee was part of it too.
[8] Professor Moyle started each class with a haiku that he wrote that morning (and an example of fish in art…his wife is an art history prof) so we were encouraged to submit haikus with everything we wrote.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vikings, Visigoths and Gummy Melchisedech

For several years our small group had a multi-part structure where individuals would sign up to lead different parts of it each week. It broke down into connect, worship, study and prayer portions of the evening. I was ok at leading the study, but what Amanda and I seemed to thrive at was generating connect activities…designed to get people talking, giggling, sharing, and just spending time together before we dive into something as weighty as worship. I have posted about these before here and here. But I found the results of two others particularly amusing and worth putting up here:

Beef Poetry

Amanda was walking through the grocery store one day and noticed that the store’s beef supplier was having a beef poetry contest. You had to include 3 of 5 key phrases (stuff like no antibiotics and all natural) and a monthly winner got $100 in free beef. So we split into groups and wrote a half dozen poems and agreed that any winnings would be used for a small group party.

I partnered up with Rich Below, who I didn’t really know very well at the time.[1] But I think we made a pretty good writing team. The initial conversation went something like this:

‘Hmm, what rhymes with beef?’
-long pause-
-long pause-
-long pause-
“What about Leif? It could be about a Scandinavian beef eater!”
“An epic Norse limerick about bovine consumption!”
“Viking poetry!”

And this is what we came up with:

There once was a Viking named Lief
Fed on All Natural Premium Beef
Choice of the USDA
So it was anchors away
He rowed strong from reef to reef

There once was a Visigoth name Bjork
Who spent his sad life eating pork
But the hormones and drugs
and tapeworms and bugs
left him feeling a considerable dork.

Leif rowed to the shore of France
and was met by a defiant dance.
The armies did battle
Leif’s strengthened by cattle
kicked the Visigoths in the pants.

I have a few rules in life. One of them is that if you have a chance to write a silly poem about do it.

Well, Rich and I didn’t win. We suspected that it was our controversial anti-pork message.[2] But Liz, Holly and Rebecca did with a catchy piece called ‘The Night Before Barbecue.’ Turns out that $100 will purchase 7 Tri Tips.

Somehow I ended up cooking them but they were good any ways.

Biblical Gum Sculpture

I handed out a list of about 25 Bible characters from relatively common (and easily depicted), like Moses to relatively obscure (i.e. Melchisedech). The characters were assigned point values between 1 and 4, commensurate with the obscurity with the character (more obscure characters received higher values). The names were also written on index cards and organized (face down) into 4 piles by point value.[3] Each person then drew a random card from one of the piles and attempted to sculpt the name using two pieces of bubble gum. From then on it is Balderdash rules. Each person tried to guess who each sculpture represented. A successful guess netted the point value for both the guesser and the sculptor.[4]

Here are the 'sculptures':
I guessed the Queen of Sheba, but was alone on this. I was wrong. This is David (1 point). What are the other 2 figures…that is his harem. I would have gone with a defining moment in the David narrative. You know…Goliath…Uzziah…Saul and the spear. Julie felt the defining image was his multiple women. Um, can you say complex Biblical character. But at least it gives me the opportunity to like to mewithoutYou’s great new song about him.

Amanda was the only other person who picked a 1 point card. Um…its Moses. Everyone got it, but at 1 point apiece, it was competitive but not enough.

Liz has an art degree and is one of several fine artists in the group. This is Elijah in the flaming chariot…which I somehow failed to get.

This was the winner. I said David. I missed the long curly hair. I probably overvalued it the Queen of Sheba at 4 points, but Gilda did a great job with it.

This was mine. There is a lake and a guy reading a scroll in a chariot and another guy explaining it to him. It is the Ethiopian eunich…and in case you didn’t zero in on the story I included an artistic representation of the fact that it was a story about a eunich.

There were a couple ways you could go with this. I said Nichodemas (John 3). Others said Pilate ('What is Truth?'). It is actually Peter from the 'Do you love me?' narrative at the end of John.

Um, that’s a parking lot. Lot for 3 points. I didn’t get this.

Corrie was sure she got this. She said Adam. She figured it was a rib cage, and one of the ribs was being highlighted…referring to the creation of Eve narrative. As she explained her theory I was sure she was right. She wasn’t. This was a rib cage. Jansen was highlighting a rib. Senacherib for 4 points.

Finally, my favorite. No one had the faintest clue. Apparently it was a 3 part ‘sounds like’ sculpture.

Yup, its Melchisedech for 4 points, which no one got, but was hysterical as Ian explained it.

[1] This is before we lived with the Belows for 3 months in our Davis move.
[2] Or maybe it was our Visigothiphobia
[3] So Moses, David and all the other 1 point characters were grouped together and Melchisedech, Senacherib and all the other 4 point charecters were grouped together. One of the reasons I did this was because of an experience as a brand new Christian in a youth group. We were playing Bible pictionary. I drew Joshua. I had no idea who he was. So I drew a shepherd (thinking he was probobly in the OT and they were all shepherds, right?) and then I drew a foot ball lineup with X's and O's and circled the tight end because Joshua Davis was our High School's tight end at the time. It was emberassing. So I like to provide teired sorts of challanges in these kinds of things.
[4] So you can accrue points by having a good sculpture or by guessing multiple sculptures well.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chesterton’s Apple: Thoughts on Empirical Mysticism

Over the summer I submitted my dissertation and, barring a catastrophe of review or logistics, I’ll graduate in the fall. Since I have to pay tuition for the fall quarter and have no real academic commitments[1], I have chosen to take Freshman Bio 2 and 3[2]…pre-recs for the Masters Degree in Ecology and Evolution I have had my eye on for years. Since my time will be limited I am preparing by working through three bio classes through various technological vehicles over the summer.[3] The material has simply left me entranced. I have come to believe that if I had not had a first year teacher for Biology in high school[4] I might not be an engineer today. But my emotive reaction to this data has caused me to reflect on my simultaneous designations as empiricist and mystic and why I feel that these labels are symbiotic rather than competitive.

Remembering that we Forget

The best word that I can think of for describing the content I am digesting would likely cause Dawkins heart burn[5]. I have found it ‘magical.’

Let me turn it over to my second favorite Chesterton quote[6] to explain.

“All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched…

…These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…

…We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget

And that is why I have found the central dogma of genetics ‘magical.’ This is why I think allopatric speciation appears to be some cosmic incantation. This is why explanation, for me, is faith building rather than faith destroying. Because the central discipline of the mystical empiricist, is to ‘remember that we forget’. The moment it becomes obvious that polypeptide chains must have four levels of chemical and physical structure providing our protein army with the seemingly unlimited structural variability our existence requires…we have ‘forgotten our names’ and are free to be atheists. Atheism isn’t moral failure or a failure of reason[9]…it is totally reasonable and, I believe, can be arrived at with substantial moral credibility. It does seem to be symptomatic, of a diminished sense of wonder, however; organ failure of our apparatus of astonishment.

The Theological Experience of Science

The way I have come to experience science ‘theologically’ has changed with time. For a while I was a proponent of a ‘God of the gaps’ approach. Under this approach, when Nowiki suggests that there is an unsolved paradox in biology that DNA requires proteins to form proteins which can not be formed without the information template provided by DNA, this admission would become the point of the class. Scientific knowledge from this perspective is valuable only as far as it demonstrates what we don’t know in order to exploit these gaps rhetorically. While these puzzles[10] are intriguing and not without theological implications, this is an impoverished way to interact with God’s general revelation. The faith building information is not what we can’t explain but what we can. It is all so much more dramatic and sublime than we could have ever imagined.

Dawkins would have us believe that the more we can explain about our origins and workings the less we need to invoke a supernatural agent. The God of the gaps approach agrees to wage the battle on this field[11]…and then gets its ass summarily kicked as the god it protects gets smaller and smaller and less worthy of worship. But the premise that explanation is inversely correlated with the metaphysical requirement for an external creative agent is not self evident. Only a callus comfort with the data could require disbelief. My experience is that the more of an empiricist I become the more mysticism I am required to accept.

A more robust alliance between science and theology is in the assertion that explanation does not attribute causality. Rather, the more sublime and textured and ‘magical’ the explanation the more it begs for a personal, cosmic cause. Theology is not best served by scientific failure but, rather, by its unmitigated success. Science[12] provides us catalysts of wonder, non-traditional liturgical aids to worship. In the middle ages, the great frescos were designed to draw the worshiper into an experience of transcendence. Art can still serve this purpose, but I have found science can do precisely the same thing. It is the ignored liturgical furniture of our age. The helix does not replace the icon but takes its rightful place along side as a conduit of wonder. From Einstein’s realization that matter and energy are fundamentally the same stuff, to the understanding that space and time are covariant, to the realization that all creatures pass on genetic information using the same essential apparatus, to the implication that, since atoms are composed mostly of nothing, so are we[13]…the only ones who do not marvel that the apple is green are those who have forgotten that it might have been gold.

It is cliché to say that atheism requires as much faith as theism…but let me try to say it this way: Scientifically motivated atheism is not a triumph of data but boredom with it. It is not the triumph of reason but the failure of wonder.

Dawkins assertion that understanding science necessitates unbelief is not an empirical statement it is an aesthetic statement. He is simply stating that he does not find the DNA story sufficiently inspiring. He does not find it to be evidence of benevolent creator. He might be right. But he has no claim to the kind of positivistic certainty he exudes.

Chesterton’s Apple

When I first read the Chesterton quote above, I immediately thought of the fourth grade. I was sitting in my reading group[14] and opened my book to a new story[15]. I have no recollection of the story, only of the illustration. There was a silver unicorn standing on a hill of red grass. A green waterfall was in the background and the crimson ground covering was periodically punctuated with thin but bulbous vertical structures (that I can only imagine fulfill the ecological niche that trees fulfill in our reality). I remember thinking how fantastic it would be to live in such a magical world. A world like that would surely be filled with wonder[16]. But then I realized, that if that was my world, it would be ‘natural’ and, thus, unremarkable.

The quote came to mind again when I was in Kenya. The jarring strangeness of such a completely different ecosystem than any I had experienced was enough, in itself, to ‘remind me of my name’[17]. But it was the zebra that brought Chesterton to mind. The zebra was astonishing not because it was striped, but because it suddenly reminded me that the horses I grew up with were not.

But, most recently, Chesterton’s discussion came to mind when reading Augustine’s city of God where he discusses the phenomena of magnetism:

“The miracles of the visible world of nature have lost their value for us because we see them continually…But things which come before our eyes in everyday experience are little reckoned of, not because they are less remarkable in nature but simply because of their continual occurrence – so much so that we have ceased to marvel at many of the marvels…daily familiarity gradually blunts the edge of wonder…who could fail to be astounded at this property of a stone, which was not merely inherent in it but also passed on through so many object suspended from it, and bound them together by invisible connections?...the natural phenomena know to all men…would be a source of astonishment to all who observe them, if it were not man’s habit to restrict his wonder at miracles to the rarities… this present state of things…has been cheapened by familiarity, but…is in fact much more wonderful” (p 390, 970, 981 and 1026)

Augustine essentially says, when something like magnetism stop making us say ‘holy crap, that’s magic’ simply because it is explainable and predictable, we have lost our way. If we found a rock that attracted water or repelled muskrats, we would find it magical. We discount the multitude of miracles God has worked into our universe by the very criterion that they are in our universe to observe. That seems an odd criterion to exclude an evidence of transcendence.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of scientists: those for whom understanding the details of creation diminishes wonder and accentuates their materialism, and those for whom learning the details of creation amplifies wonder and makes them, increasingly, mystics. This is an aesthetic rather than a rational choice. It is disingenuous to assert that the data requires one or the other. The locus of selection resides in the perception of the data rather than the data itself. The latter is the only way science has ever worked for me[18]. The more of an empiricist I become, the more of a mystic I am transformed into.

This post was prepared while listening to The Question by Emery

[1] Though I will still have a full time job, three preaching commitments and a young family…so I am contemplating a 10 week blogging sabbatical…which, at my current pace, only means skipping 3-4 posts.
[2] The second and third classes of the series for majors.
[3] These include DVD’s from the teaching company (aquired used), Mp3’s of previous offerings of the UCD class, and online video/audio of MIT’s classes through their open course policy.
[4] My parents were both educational institutions in our school, widely respected as two of the best teachers in the district. In my entire high school career they tried to use that clout only once, to get me family friend and instructor extrodinare, Bill Berry (who, in an uncomfortable unrelated, but hilarious anecdote both Amanda and I call Uncle Bill) for Biology. I got a first year teacher instead.
[5] I have split this post. It originally included an entire point about Dawkins, the New Athiests, and the sociology of belief, but I have decided that the digression was sufficiently diverse and substantial to warrant its own post.
[6] My favorite being the one this blog is named after.
[7] Incidentally, one could claim that ‘remember that we forget’ is the dominant theme of Deuteronomy…but I digress.
[8] That is the best I can do to get the gist without being overly long – though I fear I have failed on both counts in that the quote is too long and misses the gist. Let me just say, “The Ethics of Elfland” in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is 100% worth the 25 minutes it would take to read.
[9] My biggest problem with Dawkins is not that he thinks that his rehashed ideas have suddenly become definitive or that his rhetorical flair outpaces his insight…it is that he’s a bully. He does not present a case and then allow it to stand or fall…he impunes the opposition that if they do not agree with him they are either (a) not sufficiently educated, (b) morally compromised, or (c) simply not intelligent enough to see his position. With all his positivism and trumpeting of cold rationality, his writings do not seem to primarily exist to change people’s minds, but, rather, to induce shame. That is the primary symptom of intellectual bullying.
[10] And there are many of them. For example, how did we go from single cell life forms to every major body plan in 30 million years (see Gould’s Wonderful Life), how is it that life evolved so quickly after conditions on earth became hospitable for it…but only did so once, or why is is that the statistical explanation of entropy (Boltzmann – which is more satisfying than mechanical explanations) does not account for the temporal asymmetry generally observed.
[11] Much theological reflection on science fights the battle on this indefensible hill. Reflective Christians have built impressive battle works on the many intriguing paradoxes of science, holding insufficient explanation as the apologetic trump card that will carry the day. Then someone uncovers some evidence or designs some clever experiment or simply proposes a credible hypothesis, and the battle is lost (only those who have fought it continue quixotic guerilla warfare for ensuing decades being so emotively vested in defending the hill that they cannot let it go).
[12] I recently appreciated this description of the task of the empirical mystic: “Theologians and scientists both exegete God’s world, which we have been given to study and appreciate. Contemplating this world fills us with wonder and gratitude. Science, based in the freedom of the knower, can along with theology contribute to our understanding. The Spirit itself has formed within us the creative capacity not only to understand the world but also to give it voice and offer it back to God with thankful praise.” Pinnok - Flame of Love p 65
[13] And that it is electrical forces rather than physical resistance that keeps us, for example, from passing through the chair we are sitting on, since both are so unsubstantial.
[14] This seemed to be the universal way to organize the mornings in elementary school, the teacher would meet with the various reading groups (of stratified ability) in the morning while the other kids did seat work and then would teach the whole class the other subjects after lunch.
[15] Incidentally, I have two quasi-philosophical memories of 4th grade reading group. The other was regarding a story about the first woman to swim the English Channel. The story ended with some stats about how the record time required to swim the channel has dropped as more people have done it. Mrs. Reed (my favorite primary school teacher and about the kindest most spiritual lady you’d ever meet) asked if we thought that the record time would ever stop dropping. We all said no, that the more people tried and the better training technology got the faster the record time would be. Mrs. Reed then asked, ‘will the record time eventually be zero then, and what about after that, will it take negative time.’ This bugged me until High School when I realized that, oddly, it was the opposite of Zeno’s paradox.
[16] I have since noticed that it is a ubiquitous convention in science fiction to give a planet two obvious suns or moons as if to say ‘you are not in Kansas any more’ but also as if to say ‘ it is totally arbitrary that we only have one, and if you were not from earth you would find that totally novel.’
[17] If you grew up in upstate NY, the Hippopotamus is intravenous wonder.
[18] It is also why I am addicted to school and the systematic metabolism of new academic disciplines. The discipline of digesting novel facts helps me remember my name. It is a spiritual discipline of my orthodox Christian worship.