The Casual Blog

Tag: Robert Wright

Flying and fishing egrets, the possible survival of nature, and two books — Falter and the Evolution of Religion

It turned cooler here last week, and the leaves were starting to glow at Shelley Lake.  One day I saw three great egrets together at the other side of the lake.  Usually, at least around here, these are solitary creatures. One looked smaller, and I wondered if they were a family. Anyhow, they were too far away to photograph well. Then one decided to fly right towards me, and the others soon followed.  They spent some time standing in the water near me and did some fishing.

For me, these images are about a moment, never to be repeated, in the lives of particular birds.  At the same time, they open a little window into a larger world of nature, where there’s always more to be discovered.   For me they speak of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

Though I guess it’s possible to see only odd creatures.  Indeed, that may be the typical view. Our traditional attitude toward nature treats it as irrelevant, or else an antagonist to be exploited.  The concept of nature as foundational, as the ground for everything, is still far from mainstream, and needs more development and support.

Perhaps because of increasing weather emergencies, we seemed to have recently turned a corner on climate change, with some former climate change denialists finally acknowledging that our environmental situation is not good.  But the full weight of the dire reality still hasn’t sunk in.  

Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  How the Human Game Has Begun to Play Itself Out, may help. It’s a well-written, well-thought-through book that somehow manages to talk about the frightening reality we face without panicking, and instead thinking constructively about our mitigation options. 

McKibben does a great job of piecing together some of the elements of the storms we currently face, including individual greed, corporate rapaciousness, and libertarian idealism.  One thing he doesn’t examine is the central assumption underlying our heedless exploitation of nature, which is that humans are ultimately more important than anything else in the world.  

The assumption that at the end of the day humans are the only species that matters is so deeply embedded that it’s hard even to get a good look at it, much less have a serious discussion about it.  (It may be even more embedded than our assumptions about race.) But that discussion needs to be part of our survival strategy.  

Our failure to appreciate the significance of other living things and our own relationship to the complex web of life accounts in significant part for our current dire predicament.  On the other hand, embracing the natural world with empathy and gratitude would point us away from fossil fuels, agribusiness, runaway consumerism, and the other drivers of global warming.

There’s a lot to be said about long-held assumptions about human psychology and culture that are now looking like they need reexamination.  For now, I’ll mention just one thought-provoking books: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, which I just finished reading for the second time. 

Wright takes on the ambitious task of addressing the functionality of religion for the earliest humans through to us.  He views the development of religious beliefs as a progression, starting with hunter-gatherer animism, continuing through the polytheism of early agricultural civilizations, and then on to monotheism.  

He gives a really helpful overview of the historical roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and shows how their central concepts are closely related.  Along with that, he addresses the psychological and economic factors that led societies toward variations on these main ideas.  

 

In the end, Wright disclaims having a view on whether there actually is a God, while arguing that the idea of God has been good for humanity.  Like McKibben, he doesn’t consider whether benefits to humans should be considered the highest good, and doesn’t address whether religion reinforces assumptions of human superiority and entitlement that have destroyed much of the natural world.  I found his argument on moral progress to be vague and unconvincing. But I still found the book tremendously valuable in providing a framework for considering varieties of religion.

The new engagement, wildflowers, and consciousness

 

At the Eno River, near the old pump house

Jocelyn and Kyle are engaged!  He popped the question on the Williamsburg Bridge, after they’d done a run together.  The wedding will be in New York in the fall of next year. Jocelyn quickly shifted into bride-to-be mode, and is considering many logistical and atmospheric issues. She checked to see if I minded if she and I did the second dance, rather than the first.  I did not see that as a problem. We started kicking around the question of what love songs the DJ would need to play.

A trout lily at Swift Creek Bluffs

It warmed up this weekend, and I got out in the woods to look for wildflowers.  You have to be attentive to find these little guys, and the effort puts me in a good mental place.  I got down on my knees in the forest mud,  using a 105mm lens on my Nikon D850 on a tripod, very low to the ground, with focus, aperture, and shutter speed set manually, and a cable release.  I usually take several shots of a subject, changing the settings for each one, experimenting. It’s a labor-intensive way to make an image, but the extra steps also leave room for looking carefully, and allows for the possibility of a subtle shift in the light that is golden.  These are very small flowers, substantially magnified.

Spring beauties

On the ride over to Eno River State Park on Saturday, I listened to an audiobook titled Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright.  I recently finished Wright’s The Moral Animal, a lively and at times unsettling take on evolutionary psychology, and was curious about how he could fit Buddhism into his framework.  Wright’s Buddhism is largely secularized (no extended discussions of reincarnation) and focused on mindfulness meditation, which is ground well-trodden by others, like Stephen Batchelor.

But Wright has some stimulating ideas about the nature of consciousness and its relation to the external world.  He posits a modular model of the mind in which conscious thought is a product rather than the producer. Conscious thought, in his view, serves various purposes, including public relations, but the primary drivers of activity are feelings.  He sees our emotions as evolutionary adaptations that we can understand and shape with the tools of meditation.

In other consciousness news, this week’s New Yorker has a lively piece by Larissa MacFarquhar’s on the philosopher Andy Clark.  Clark takes issue with the idea that the mind is simply the brain, and argues that it extends outside the body. A homey example is using a pad and pen to keep notes, which augments mental capacity.  He sees our relationships to objects and to each other as essential, rather than optional. Like Feldman, Clark has modeled human activity in terms of constant predictions based on probability estimates from our experience, rather than an orderly reaction and consideration of external phenomena.