Just a few tenuously linked cogitations (or cogitated links) today:
1. Paul Kingsnorth laments the watered down sort of environmentalism that focuses on sustainability, which inevitably means sustainability of...humans with their self-absorbed, energy-wasting ways. The apparently true environmentalism that values the natural world for its own sake seems forever in retreat. However, nature in itself is nothing but a human value. Outside of Homo sapiens, nothing in nature would blink if tomorrow the moon slammed into the earth. I always think of Wallace Stevens: "Except for us the total past felt nothing when destroyed."
This it not technically true, as we think pretty strongly that a range of non-human organisms have sentient awareness. But we ourselves are such linguistic beasts through and through that, in large part, if it isn't at least potentially articulated in some way, it isn't fully real. Human beings evolved to care about human values, which includes nature, but only in competition with other values.
Some people like their nature mediated. Henri Rousseau, who painted the image above, drew his inspiration not from traveling to the tropics, but from the local zoo. Similarly, I have enjoyed so many nature programs on the Serengeti over the years that I think an actual safari would be a letdown, and not just because of all the other cheesy tourists perched atop jeeps pointing at the non-plussed zebras. Imagination fruitfully expands reality. For better or worse, earth is the human planet until we're gone. The discovery of life elsewhere in the universe, even if it isn't "intelligent" (or perhaps especially if it isn't intelligent), might be a great comfort to some: life existing beyond our capacity to despoil it.
2. The media (the cardinal manifestation of the very human capacity for mass hysteria) doesn't do environmentalism many favors. For weeks we heard that the gulf oil spill was a kind of toxic stake thrust into the heart of oceanic nature. We heard that it may never recover. What do we hear now? That most of the oil is gone and scientists are having to work hard to demonstrate any clear-cut damage to the ecosystem. When people develop alarm fatigue from this sort of thing, is it any wonder that skepticism over global warming persists?
3. Allen Frances, M.D. in the Times decries the possibility of treating normal grief reactions with antidepressants. It is an indication of the bizarre two-sidedness of psychiatry that half of the commentariat complain about psychotropic medications not working, while the other half fret that they may work too well for the wrong indications. Of course, people have been obtaining benzodiazepines and other sedatives for grief symptoms for decades.
This is a great example of the importance of context, and why brain scans and rating scales ultimately play a small role in making diagnoses. For a diagnosis is not primarily about biology or symptoms, it is about the human meaning of what is going on. A psychiatrist who denies a patient an antidepressant for normal grief is acting as a kind of arbiter of interpersonal and cultural well-being.
4. Sharon Begley at Newsweek discusses research suggesting why irrationality may have been favored by evolution. Reason evolved not to arrive at disinterested truth, but to persuade others of a point of view (Nietzsche's truth as a "mobile army of metaphors"). And arguably "disinterested truth" is the most convincing point of view of all. We evolved as promiscuous, murderous sophists--how then has moral progress been possible? Can psychology explain that I wonder? Is reciprocal altruism all there is? If truth is ultimately pragmatic, it ceases to do its work once we see it as merely pragmatic; disinterested truth is the fiction in which we must believe in order to sidestep nihilism. One must willfully overlook the contingency of one's values in the way that a batter at the plate must forget about everything except the pitcher.
5. Dave Pell at NPR considers technology and how it can distract us from "the big picture," which in his case involves atrocities going on in Afghanistan. It made me wonder though, what is this "big picture" that people talk about? Is it more like a painting, or a photgraph, or a collage? Is it a composite of all the "little pictures?" For some people the big picture is philosophy, for others science, for others religion. Of course, the picture can get too big, right? From the perspective of the universe or infinity, nothing less than totality matters. I suppose the art of living is the art of perceptual focus, of arriving at the "just right" picture.