All posts by Ben Shaine

The “Grand Myth of Scientific Superrationality” and Pinkwater’s Borgel (a Christmas story)

Shanghai Skyscape
Shanghai, China
photo by Peter Morgan
Seoul, Korea
Seoul, Korea, near by Han River
photo by Patriotmissile at the English language Wikipedia
New York City
New York City, Overview of Manhattan from the Empire State Building
photo by Hakilon

Starting into Murry Code’s book on Whitehead today, I have the sense that Euro-American imperialism hasn’t ended, but has shifted to a pervasive form that is transmitted culturally, so global now that it is generally taken as a given, invisible as the ocean is to the fish in the sea. At its core is

…a Grand Myth of Scientific Superrationality – the idea that science exemplifies the epitome of rational thought.

This powerful myth appears to be the principal support for an inherently violent and imperialistic reason. It would therefore be well for me to try to spell out what I mean by imperialism. Following Edward Said, I understand this to refer to ‘a political philosophy whose aim and purpose for being is territorial expansion and legitimation.’ But he goes further and notes that the term refers not merely to a violent conquest of foreign
territory; it also alludes to attempts to subjugate the belief systems of others. No modern mode of thought seems more efficient in this respect than science, whose usurpation of the vital function of meaning-making tends to be legitimated by contemporary natural philosophers who style themselves as naturalists even as they turn their backs on nature and anchor their philosophical investigations in scientific theories.

A culture that is in thrall to a burgeoning technoscience recalls, in other words, the Eurocentric imperialism of the nineteenth century that, as Said puts it, granted itself the right to intervene wherever and however it chose. Acting under the assumption that they were representatives of a superior culture, its agents set out with the conviction that ‘laying claim to an idea and laying claim to a territory – given the extraordinarily current idea that the non-European world was there to be claimed, occupied, and ruled by Europe – were . . . different sides of the same, essentially constitutive activity, which had the force, the prestige, and the authority of science.’ It is therefore ‘a serious underestimation of imperialism,’ says Said, to overlook the fact that a ‘hegemonic imperial design’ also presumes a right ‘to treat reality appropriatively.’ The importance of this observation is borne out by non-Western critics of the scientistic ideology who maintain that a sanitized violence has been institutionalized on a worldwide scale in the name of scientific values (e.g., efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and economy of effort).

Murry Code, Process, Reality, and the Power of Symbols: Thinking with A.N. Whitehead, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 2.

Alternative ways of being and doing are suppressed in the presence of this myth and its cultural and material expression. But I suspect, like the mammals living in the shadow of dinosaurs, that they will continue to evolve and survive, to re-emerge when conditions change in their favor.

Looking at the extent of religious expression in the midst of the Grand Myth of Superrationality, it seems that the dominant paradigm develops its own counter-currents as it becomes apparently monolithic, and within that complexity there is hope, actually more than hope: the expectation of possibility. I’m reminded of the Great Popsicle in Daniel Pinkwater’s Borgel (one of the great novels of all time), whose joyous life-giving characteristics re-appear in new forms when the previous form is suppressed and presumed exterminated.

Re-reading what I’ve written here, I realize it’s Christmas day, celebration of the liberating incarnation entering the world. It’s an appropriate time to reflect on dominating paradigms, the tendency to be constricted by them unaware of alternatives, and also their  impermanence and the possibility of release.

An example of a useful exercise in seeing from the other’s perspective

How the Repubican base feels now, from the Greenberg, Carville and Siefert study
How the Repubican base feels now, from the Greenberg, Carville and Siefert study

See Edsall’s Opinionator  commentary today and the linked report by Greenberg,  Carville, and Seifert, “Inside the GOP: Report on focus groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and moderate Republicans” for insights into perceptions underlying Republican animosity toward the federal government. I suspect few liberals are aware of these.

On a similar note, morning I enjoyed talking with a professional financial adviser this morning about his view that the Ryan budget provides a solution for most of the country’s problems.

Such views are quite different from mine, but I can see my own perceptions adjusting as I know these others better. How best to convey to students the benefits and power that come from an in-depth understanding of the other side that almost always changes your own perspective, as well as providing strategic insights into how to influence the situation?

The notion that your own position can be & should be adaptable/flexible seems key is often not understood, and that adaptability/flexibility is not the same as weakness/collapse.

I don’t yet know how to teach this, except through the physical analog of Aikido. How else can it be done well?

Insight into why Wilderness is a hot-button cultural issue

I hadn’t realized the value-based rather than resource-based aspects of the Wilderness Act mandate, until I came across the page below in a U.S. Forest Service Wilderness planning and  management document.

In this sense, the Wilderness Act is a legislated assertion of a human role in the Creation that differs from that interpreted by many Christian fundamentalists and probably others, i.e. congressional enactment of a religious position, rather than just a specification regarding land management actions such as roadbuilding.

Page from Landres et al_2008_Keeping it wild

Encountering risk in Wilderness on Olympic’s High Divide

Wilderness is a place where one encounters risk and can never be sure of attaining a goal. Here’s Coleman Smith’s video of him and his friends facing circumstance on the High Divide in Olympic National Park. They met with an unanticipated obstacle which prevented completion of their intended route, but didn’t let that detract from the joy of the experience. (The obstacle appears at 07:45 in the video.)

Artifice in wilderness management: Upper Sol Duc River bridge in Olympic National Park

Definition of ARTIFICE
1.a : clever or artful skill : ingenuity
1.b : an ingenious device or expedient
2.a : an artful stratagem : trick
2.b: false or insincere behavior
Thoreau’s idealized notion of wilderness sets up an unattainable ideal of contemplative non-intervention that provides no guidance for what sort of human artifice is permitted.
Mike Everett

horizontal white spaceLet’s be honest about this bridge. It’s artifice.

I don’t know its history, yet — am looking forward to talking with the Olympic National Park wilderness resource specialist, who hopefully will know. Evidently, the big log didn’t come from this location, but from lower elevation, somewhere else, I’d guess outside the park. It’s larger diameter than any tree in the vicinity. And it’s second growth, unlike the surrounding forest: take a look at the wide rings in the cross-section. The wood hasn’tSol Duc log bridge cross section showing second growth log grayed yet, so the bridge is quite new, built in Olympic National Park Wilderness since congressional designation of that Wilderness in 1988. Apparently, it was dropped into place by a Big helicopter. Note the steel staples in the log ends, for attaching cables to guide it onto its foundations as it descends in its sling. Skyhook. Technological magic. (What would Thoreau think of this?)

Sol Duc log bridge approach and campsite signA sign in matching style points hikers to nearby designated campsites.horizontal white spaceupper Sol Duc stock ford stepsDownstream from the bridge, a ford across the creek provides access for stock. The Park Service provides a log stairway for them to climb out the uphill bank. This artifice decreases erosion and creates a sharp edge between wild land and human construction. People and domestic animals stay on the constructed side of the boundary.

horizontal white spaceSol Duc log bridge plastic wedge securing railing postHere’s what I like best: Seems that as the crew was finishing up the bridge, they noticed that one of the railing posts was loose. So one of the gals/guys picked up a felling wedge they happened to have around & pounded it into the crack. Looking at the wedge there today, I can see them doing it. There’s a genuineness to appreciate, a making-do with materials at hand that fits what I know of living in wild country, bricolage.

What’s more natural here, the skyhooked bridge or the bright green plastic wedge?

horizontal white spaceThe bridge itself is a feature in a place congress directs to be “without permanent improvements … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” A more modest bridge could have spanned this creek. Would that have been better? By what criteria?

The upcoming backcountry planning for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska should address parallel questions. When we’re aware of them, we’re in position to address clear value choices. Otherwise, it’s easy to live within our preconceptions, stay in our comfort zone, and never encounter the wild, contradictory and mysterious. Wilderness should be, I think, about real encounter.

I like this bridge.

Olympic National Park’s High Divide-Seven Lakes Basin – Untrammeled?

A “look but don’t touch” Wilderness

Wilderness character is … the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals that distinguish wilderness from all other lands.
Landres, et al., Monitoring Selected Conditions Related to Wilderness Character:A National Framework
Once designated, wilderness is to be allowed to express its own will.
Doug Scott, “Untrammeled,” “Wilderness Character” and the Challenges of Wilderness Preservation

horizontal white spaceI backpacked this week in Olympic National Park’s alpine gem, the trail following the High Divide between the the Seven Lakes Basin and Hoh Valley, looking across to Mt. Olympus. The place is both very attractive to hikers and in congressionally designated Wilderness. The Park Service handles the potential for crowds by issuing a limited number of permits for camping in specified areas. Each small area, more or less a few hundred yards across, contains between six and eleven campsites, marked with numbered posts. Camping outside these sites is illegal, and hikers are asked not to leave the trails. The trails are mindfully located and constructed, with stone steps and retaining walls, crafted logwork bridges, and hewn log slab boardwalks in wet spots.

The stonework on the upper trail, but also the entire trail system that I saw on this trip was at a particular aesthetic design standard, a human construction quite something in itself, really beautiful and in my view appropriate in this location, but hardly untrammeled. Even with budget cuts, the Park Service is keeping it maintained. I came across boardwalk reconstruction.

Lofty Mount Lu (廬山高) Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, 193.8 x 98.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Note trail switchbacks overlooking the waterfall.
Lofty Mount Lu (廬山高) Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, 193.8 x 98.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. Note trail switchbacks overlooking the waterfall.

The design aesthetic is a combo of traditional Chinese (refined, meditative) with American West frontier materials. Maybe we could call it “Sunset Magazine/National Park Service” style. Layout fits principles taught in landscape architecture school and appreciated in the Ming Dynasty.

Among hikers and park staff I met, there’s a general expectation that hikers’ behavior would fit with the values this style embodies. The permit process, requiring advance planning, going to a park office, filling out forms and interacting with officials, likely serves an effective filter, screening out those whose values don’t fit. Wild people aren’t welcomed.

Is it wilderness? For sure, the land beyond the borders of the trails and campsites fits the criteria. What you see from the trail is wild. But you don’t go there. It’s a “look, don’t touch” wilderness, viewed from quite permanent human constructions within which you are required to stay, a willful manipulation of experience done with art, craft and skill. Even though the whole area is legally capital-W “Wilderness,” the trail and campsites are  not wild, with the the wild extending from the edge of these developments.

To me the design is really quite stunning. Though not commonly done in this part of the world, the design philosphy could be carried further to include backcountry cabins, lodges, meditative buildings in the same style and intent, presumably not in this location, but somewhere. Wilderness designation is so extensive in the Pacific Northwest mountains that it pretty much precludes this opportunity. Where there is development, outside of Wilderness, it’s almost always road-accessible and car/car-campground oriented. Absence of the European-type trail-accessible hut is a void, I think. Little constituency for it here? Instead, I was hiking with $1000+ of high-tech gear on my back.


The Wilderness Act of 1964, Section 2(c), Definition of Wilderness:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…”


from Landres, et al.,Monitoring Selected Conditions Related to Wilderness Character:A National Framework:

wilderness character is … the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals that distinguish wilderness from all other lands.

…These ideals form a complex set of relationships between the land, its management, and the meanings people associate with wilderness. … All wildernesses, regardless of size, location, or any other feature, are unified by this statutory definition of wilderness. These four qualities of wilderness are:

• Untrammeled – wilderness is essentially unhindered and free from modern human control or manipulation.
• Natural – wilderness ecological systems are substantially free  from the effects of modern civilization.
• Undeveloped – wilderness is essentially without permanent improvements or modern human occupation.
• Outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation – Wilderness provides outstanding opportunities for people to experience solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, including the values of inspiration and physical and mental challenge.

Bristlecone pine, Lost Creek Wilderness Area, Colorado, scratchboard by Evan Cantor
Evan Cantor’s illustration for Doug Scott’s article about “untrammeled wilderness character” in Wild Earth, the magazine of the Wildlands Project, showing a landscape aesthetic similar to Ming Dynasty art. To what extent is American understanding of wilderness sourced in this tradition of Chinese culture, as well as Thoreau, Muir and Robert Marshall? What ambiguities and conflicts does that imply?

Olympic National Park designated Wilderness map

Olympic National Park campsite map showing areas with entry quotas

Loss of self

In his opinion piece on “Privacy and the Threat to the Self” in today’s NY Times, Michael P. Lynch discusses how information technology, including megadata analysis, potentially alters the existence of independent selves.

Will be interesting to compare this loss of self with the loss of self that occurs with enlightenment, in Buddhist terms, and the expansion & connection with the larger world in Aikido, and with the communal functioning of insect colonies. And yet Buddhism, Aikido, Christianity, etc., each feature selves who individually achieve and are the paradigmatic exemplars. Same in Nazism.