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Nisqually NWR

Flushed

As I said, I did see several birds on Wednesday’s walk. The most unusual around here was this Great Egret that, naturally enough, took off as soon as I pointed a camera at him. I managed to get several shots with much better exposure when he landed a short distance away, but this first one turned out to be my favorite shot:

Great Egret Taking Off

As I was stalking the egret, I flushed a Harrier Hawk which suddenly flashed upward in front of my face, nearly hitting me with his wings. I suspect he was even more surprised than me that I had walked right up behind him. I missed the first couple of shots, and since I was actually stalking the Egret, I had my camera set to bracket exposures, which works well when photography white birds because it insures that not all the shots are completely washed out. It doesn’t work nearly as well when the bird is flying as rapidly as this harrier was, however. Still, I like this shot a lot, even if the wing tips are blurred because it was slightly underexposed:

Harrier Hawk

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Nisqually NWR

Meditation on Green

It was too sunny to sit home and finish my comments on Pirsig’s Lila. so I went to Nisqually Wildlife refuge. It must be fall because I saw more birds today than I’ve seen in awhile.

But the high point of the day came while standing at the edge of a swamp trying to capture a shot of this dragon flying. While I’ve managed to get pretty good pictures of one when landed, I’ve never managed to get a picture of one flying before:

Dragonfly

In order to capture the shot, I spent nearly a half hour staring through my 400mm lens, trying to manually focus on the dragonfly because autofocus kept trying to focus on the background.

Most of the time I simply stared into the green blur that serves as the background of the above picture. It was a strange meditation, with me and the dragonfly strangely suspended in time.

When I accidentally focused on the bullrushes in the background, it felt strangely surreal as if I’d been transported to a land where blades of grass stand six foot tall:

Bulrushes

and even a single pair of blades seem strangely beautiful:

Two Blades

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Pirsig's Lila

Pirsig’s Patterns

Another idea I grew to appreciate in Lila was the concept of patterns and the importance of understanding them. It’s obviously not a new idea. The concept of “patterns of behavior” is an old one, but Pirsig’s emphasis on the importance of patterns makes the reader see them in a new light.

Particularly important is Pirsig’s division into dynamic patterns and static patterns:

In the past Phaedrus’s own radical bias caused him to think of Dynamic Quality alone and neglect static patterns of quality. Until now he had always felt that these static patterns were dead. They have no love. They offer no promise of anything. To succumb to them is to succumb to death, since that which does not change cannot live. But now he was beginning to see that this radical bias weakened his own case. Life can’t exist on Dynamic Quality alone. It has no staying power. To cling to Dynamic Quality alone apart from any static patterns is to cling to chaos. He saw that much can be learned about Dynamic Quality by studying what it is not rather than futilely trying to define what it is.

Static quality patterns are dead when they are exclusive, when they demand blind obedience and suppress Dynamic change. But static patterns, nevertheless, provide a necessary stabilizing force to protect Dynamic progress from degeneration. Although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world. Neither static nor Dynamic Quality can survive without the other. In traditional, substance-centered metaphysics, life isn’t evolving toward anything. Life’s just an extension of the properties of atoms, nothing more. It has to be that because atoms and varying forms of energy are all there is. But in the Metaphysics of Quality, what is evolving isn’t patterns of atoms. What’s evolving is static patterns of value, and while that doesn’t change the data of evolution it completely up-ends the interpretation that can be given to evolution.

This actually seems like an amazing revelation in the book, because Phaedrus had been so strongly opposed to the Victorian viewpoint expressed by Rigel. Phaedrus realizes that constant change is not only impossible but is dangerous to any society, which is not to say that stasis cannot be equally dangerous. Pirsig seems right on when he argues that “ although Dynamic Quality, the Quality of freedom, creates this world in which we live, these patterns of static quality, the quality of order, preserve our world.” The genius of America’s Constitution, in fact, seems to be its ability to balance these two forces, preserving the freedoms our ancestors fought for while allowing us the freedom to adjust to a constantly changing world.

Seeing the world in terms of dynamic and static patterns allows us a very different view of morality:

As Phaedrus had gotten into them he had seen that the isolation of these static moral codes was important. They were really little moral empires all their own, as separate from one another as the static levels whose conflicts they resolved:

First, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of biological life over inanimate nature. Second, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the social order over biological life-conventional morals -proscriptions against drugs, murder, adultery, theft and the like. Third, there were moral codes that established the supremacy of the intellectual order over the social. What was emerging was that the static patterns that hold one level of organization together are often the same patterns that another level of organization must fight to maintain its own existence. Morality is not a simple set of rules. It’s a very complex struggle of conflicting patterns of values. This conflict is the residue of evolution. As new patterns evolve they come into conflict with old ones. Each stage of evolution creates in its wake a wash of problems.

It’s out of this struggle between conflicting static patterns that the concepts of good and evil arise. Thus, the evil of disease which the doctor is absolutely morally committed to stop is not an evil at all within the germ’s lower static pattern of morality. The germ is making a moral effort to stave off its own destruction by lower-level inorganic forces of evil.

Although every pattern is originally designed to maximize something positive, when one pattern conflicts with another it is often seen as “evil,” even though it is certainly not evil when seen from the earlier perspective. Although we cannot always accept the consequences of a pattern, seeing it and understanding the reason for its existence helps us to better deal with it, perhaps even to coexist with it, if not downright adapt to it.

Pirsig certainly sees patterns on a larger scale than I’ve ever imagined them:

Where has he been during this whole century? That’s what this whole century’s been about, this struggle between intellectual and social patterns. That’s the theme song of the twentieth century. Is society going to dominate intellect or is intellect going to dominate society? And if society wins, what’s going to be left of intellect? And if intellect wins what’s going to be left of society? That was the thing that this evolutionary morality brought out clearer than anything else. Intellect is not an extension of society any more than society is an extension of biology. Intellect is going its own way, and in doing so at war with society, seeking to subjugate society, to put Society under lock and key. An evolutionary morality says it is moral for intellect to do so, but it also contains a warning: Just as a society that weakens its people’s physical health endangers its own stability, so does an intellectual pattern that weakens and destroys the health of its social base also endanger its own stability.

Better to say “has endangered.” It’s already happened. This has been a century of fantastic intellectual growth and fantastic social destruction. The only question is how long this process can keep on.

Those of us who’ve devoted much of our live to contemporary poetry and fiction have long been aware of this conflict, and it’s increasingly clear that even the general public has begun to react to it in unpredictable ways.

Most artists, at least most of those who’ve become famous, have challenged traditional values. Thomas Hardy, often seen as the first modern author, vigorously assailed a society that suppressed those on the lower rungs of society, those who dreamed of rising above their position, only to be destroyed by the bureaucracy developed to maintain the status quo.

Few famous artists, on the hand, have spoken about maintaining our social patterns, perhaps more time should be devoted to doing so, particularly if Pirsig is right when he argues that:

“What holds a person together is his patterns of likes and dislikes,” he
said. “And what holds a society together is a pattern of likes and dislikes.
And what holds the whole world together is patterns of likes and dislikes.

Of course, perhaps it’s just that I’m older and no longer have the energy to challenge the system, but I think I’ve always felt that most of the old-fashioned morality served a real function if not imposed arbitrarily or too harshly. But, then, I’ve always lived in a pretty liberal, West-Coast-kind-of society where people pretty much accept you for who you are as long as you don’t go out of the way to irritate your neighbors, whoever they might be.

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Pirsig's Lila

Pirsig Questions Science’s Role in Society

One of the more interesting topics Pirsig explores in Lila is whether or not science offers us the best view of “reality,” an assumption that I’ve generally conceded, but not with a lot of thought about it.

For me, one of his most telling arguments is:

Should reality be something that only a handful of the world’s most advanced physicists understand? One would expect at least a majority of people to understand it. Should reality be expressible only in symbols that require university-level mathematics to manipulate? Should it be something that changes from year to year as new scientific theories are formulated? Should it be something about which different schools of physics can quarrel for years with no firm resolution on either side? If this is so then how is it fair to imprison a person in a mental hospital for life with no trial and no jury and no parole for “failing to understand reality”? By this criterion shouldn’t all but a handful of the world’s most advanced physicists be locked up for life? Who is crazy here and who is sane?

Seeing science in this way made me reconsider my assumption that science offered the best way of seeing reality. It does seem ridiculous to allow others to determine what is or is not real for us. In essence, we’ve ceded to scientists the same power that our ancestors ceded to church officials. Scientists are the new “priests” of reality, probably too much power to cede to anyone.

Of course, Pirsig’s purpose in challenging science’s grip on our perceptions is to offer his own alternative:

Reality, which is value, is understood by every infant. It is a universal starting place of experience that everyone is confronted with all the time. Within a Metaphysics of Quality, science is a set of static intellectual patterns describing this reality, but the patterns are not the reality they describe. If science is a study of substances and their relationships, then the field of cultural anthropology is a scientific absurdity. In terms of substance there is no such thing as a culture. It has no mass, no energy. No scientific laboratory instrument has ever been devised that can distinguish a culture from a non-culture.

But if science is a study of stable patterns of value, then cultural anthropology becomes a supremely scientific field. A culture can be defined as a network of social patterns of value. As the Values Project anthropologist Kluckhohn had said, patterns of value are the essence of anthropologist studies. In traditional, substance-centered metaphysics, life isn’t evolving toward anything. Life’s just an extension of the properties of atoms, nothing more. It has to be that because atoms and varying forms of energy are all there is. But in the Metaphysics of Quality, what is evolving isn’t patterns of atoms. What’s evolving is static patterns of value, and while that doesn’t change the data of evolution it completely up-ends the interpretation that can be riven to evolution.

It’s a good thing that Pirsig doesn’t outright reject the scientific method since most of us aren’t ready to do that. But, like Pirsig, I feel that some of the most important aspects of our lives cannot be adequately explained by science.

I seriously thought about pursuing a career in psychology and loved the beginning classes, but I was totally turned off when I observed the UW’s Skinnerian approach, particularly the electrodes implanted in the brains of white rats. While new brain scanning technology seems to offer much greater potential to understand the human brain, I still doubt that it will ever be able to truly comprehend how the human brain functions, much less explain why particular individuals think the way they do, no matter how many brain synapses they analyze.

Perhaps more important for the survival of society is Pirsig’s insistence that the major flaw in subject-object science is that it makes no provision for morals:

Now, it should be stated at this point that the Metaphysics of Quality supports this dominance of intelligence over society. It says intellect is a higher level of evolution than society; therefore, it is a more moral level than society. It is better for an idea to destroy a society than it for a society to destroy an idea. But having said this, the Metaphysics of Quality goes on to say that science, the intellectual pattern that has been appointed to take over society, has a defect in it. The defect is that subject-object science has no provision for morals. Subject-object science is only concerned with facts. Morals have no objective reality. You can look through a microscope or telescope or oscilloscope for the rest of your life and you will never find a single moral. There aren’t any there. They are all in your head. They exist only in your imagination.

From the perspective of a subject-object science, the world is a completely purposeless, valueless place. There no point in anything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Everything just functions, like machinery. There is nothing morally wrong with being lazy, nothing morally wrong with lying, with theft, with suicide, with murder, with genocide. There is nothing morally wrong because there are no morals, just functions.

Now that intellect was in command of society for the first time in history, was this the intellectual pattern it was going to run society with?

I’ve already expressed my dismay at how some scientists seem perfectly willing to prostitute their skills for dubious causes, either because they lack moral standards or because they can convince themselves that what they are doing will serve “a greater good.”

I suspect the move from liberal arts education in college to job-oriented training will add to this approach in science. In a world where technological change happens faster and faster, it’s vital that those forces be directed by those driven by more than greed and technological expertise.