January 2006

Henry Drummond‘s essay “The Greatest Thing in the World” is an excellent exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 (which is beautifully rendered in Chinese Calligraphy). I think every human being should read and think about these ideas. How can we love each other when the world is so complex, violent, and motivated by selfishness? How can the greatest thing in the world live within the same flesh and blood that commits the most atrocious acts?
A central question for me, is how to assign value to natural systems. First of all, as an aspiring ecologist, I want to understand HOW living systems work. But, I am also interested in them from a theological standpoint, as I believe humans have a duty to be stewards of this world. It doesn’t belong to us to do as we please. “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). The hardest thing for me to understand is how a system whose agents are completely selfish (I have never met any species, humans included, that were not interested first and foremost in the propagation of their own kind above all other considerations) can be assigned intrinsic value rigorously. This is closely tied to the controversial concept of emergence (fun to note the connections between Thomas Pynchon and Norbert Weiner, thanks Will Cathcart). There is no question in my mind that wilderness is valuable to the spiritual health of humankind, and to its physical health. The latter argument is easy to make, but the former more difficult. It is interesting, though, how similar the ecosystem is to the market economy.
In the economy, agents compete for money, which basically is a symbol of the ability to control resources. In the ecosystem, agents compete for energy, which is used to increase or propagate their physical identity (genes). I think the answer must lie somewhere between the intrinsic (spiritual) value of something that is beautiful (aesthetics) and the ability of the system to efficiently allocate resources (making life for people better, allowing them to take more time to enjoy themselves and their surroundings). What a person finds to be beautiful is a reflection of their inner self (which, for all I know, may be just another emergent property of one’s brain). And, I believe it pleases God when we delight in the surroundings he has placed us in. Ultimately, this leads us to love Him more deeply, and to see His presence in unexpected places, and thus we can learn to love deeply that which is deemed repugnant by the standards of any society. These thoughts are rich in seeming paradoxes, which resolve into layers of meaning, ad infinitum (like a fractal?).

“The defining conflict of the next era will be whether life has any intrinsic value, or whether it is merely a tool for the continued propagation of human interests.” From The Corporation. I thought it was pretty biased, but very interesting and informative. I especially liked the interviews with Ray Anderson, of Interface Carpetting. My view is that the phenomenon of life cannot be confined to the stereotype of either extreme. It is valuable both for intrinsic and instrumental reasons. In this sense, wildness is a source for both art and engineering. Also in the news, the research of Alan Pounds, of Monteverde (where I will be studying abroad for the next four months) Costa Rica on tropical frog populations.
Now, for a few links. First, I was surprised to find evidence to contradict a stereotype (it originally came from the concept of takers and LEAVERS in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael) I had about indigenous peoples of the past. I realized they actually weren’t perfect. In fact, I expect their sinfulness and relative ability to live sustainably was the same as all people, except their circumstances didn’t allow their culture to expand continually like exploitive agriculturalists did (see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel) and destroy or assimilate almost every other culture.
And, I am disturbed by a few trends in the culture. One is the disintegration of organized religions. Without religious traditions and scripture, how will we have any objective source for prioritizing our personal lives? I can assure you, if I didn’t have access to fellowship with other believers and the scriptures, my ability to love other people would dramatically decline as my life became dominated by selfishness and evil. Secondly, I don’t like the rampant surveillance going on, with the NSA, etc. It fits too well with ideas like the “mark of the beast” in Revelation (read it even if you aren’t a Christian. It’s a fascinatingly complex book). Bush isn’t the antichrist, of course, but one can discern certain tendencies in our society toward centralization and forced (albeit subtly) ideological uniformity, which, combined with vacuous “spirituality” premised on what amounts to hedonism leads to nothing short of tyranny. Also, I have become interested in Michel Foucault‘s meditation that modern prisons are seeking to punish not the body but the soul.
And finally, on a lighter note, don’t forget that “awkwardness is the new sexy.” That’s good news for all you nerds. Credit goes to Will Cathcart once again.

I am a rural person. I know a lot of “great thinkers” lived in big cities, but I believe that there is something to be said for the rural life. First of all, rural people are generally not very powerful, and thus they don’t cause scandalously huge amounts of damage to society when they act in a corrupt fashion (like this Jack Abramoff fellow seems to have done. I bet he didn’t grow up in the country.). Now, it’s not that country people are better than everyone else, it’s just that when they do what is wrong, it doesn’t cause the deaths of millions of innocent people, or the squandering of public property or funds, etc. When you screw somebody over in the country, they usually just hold a bitter grudge against you for a very, very long time. But, back to the point. The point is I think that a lot of people who are in my generation (I’m in college) are afraid to live in rural areas because of economic insecurity. Why is this? Why do all the “good” jobs have to be in a big city? The reason this bothers me is that I think that a lot of the intelligent folks would actually enjoy the rural life if they could see if for what it really is, rather than dwelling on the stereotypes (such as Deliverance).
Another thing that is bothering me is that I think the current economic situation is highly unstable. The dependence on foreign oil, the unfamiliarity of folks with how to procure food from the land, and how to work primitive technology. One electromagnetic pulse would be sufficient to render the entire Eastern US helpless, because everything is digital. It’s pretty scary. I think a little bit of farming familiarity would do a lot of people good. I was going to write more, but I’ll leave it at this. I’m worried we are about to hit another dark age, one from which it will be incredibly difficult to recover from, due to the ecological exhaustion of the land. Oh yeah, and there is one other thing, WIKIPEDIA IS TAKING OFF. The internet is my favorite digital technology. Even if our electronic world is about to come crashing down around us, we might as well take advantage of its fruits while they are still around (like blogs)!
And, I have become more confidant in the intellectual foundations of Christianity. Metaphysics ultimately boils down to choices between mysteries, not foolproof arguments.