Monday, April 27, 2009

OK, OK, One More Picture.

There Are Too Many Pictures On This Blog. Here's Some Words.

Because A) a couple of people have asked me about it, or things related to it, and because B) it’s horrifically dry and academic as it now stands, I thought tonight I would give a more concise and hopefully more interesting overview of my senior thesis

Ok, seriously, please keep reading.

While technically, my thesis was a criticism of a theory in cognitive biology made using Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of Immanuel Kant, there was a lot more going on under the surface that could not come out in an academic paper. I worked out a lot of my own personal issues writing that thesis, and I feel like I resolved a lot of questions I had at the time.

I went into my undergrad undecided, because I didn’t have any career in mind, and my father, who is a philosophy professor, told me that I should take some time to try out classes and see what interested me. In my sophomore year I took an entry-level biology course, loved it, and that same semester I became a biology major.

But within a year and a half, I wanted out. ASU didn’t have a separate pre-med program, so even if you wanted to be an ecologist or some other esoteric type of biologist, you were still lumped into classes with every tom, dick, and harry who wanted to make a lot of money at playing doctor. On top of that, I began to find that somewhere underneath all the encouragements to question everything, to look for the truth using scientific reasoning and the inductive logic that is the basis for science, there seemed to be a decided lack of…something. Suddenly, the same professors who had told me that science had boundaries were also trying to tell me that religion sprung from the fact that humans were social animals and needed to connect with others; suddenly, they were arguing that there were no universal truths, that the only way anything could be known was through science and experimentation, and that even that was limited and often completely wrong.

This sat badly with the part of me that likes to write music and go hiking, the part of me that reaches for that height of feeling that occurs sometimes when the moon is low and orange and the breeze is blowing the smell of rain in from the east. I wanted meaning, and they were telling me there was none to be had.

At first I decided, “I’ll just add a philosophy minor. That will help integrate the other side of me, and balance out all the science.” So I enrolled in an entry-level philosophy course, and, in a circumstance of either great misfortune or great blessing, it turned out my professor was a disciple of Rudolph Carnap, the original logical positivist. At the time I was in his class, he was bidding to buy Rudolph Carnap’s desk. If you don’t know what logical positivism is, basically it’s the idea that there are no truths except truths by definition (i.e. a bachelor is an unmarried man)—basically, that nothing is true, and things are only useful or not.

I ran for it. I dropped my bio major and enrolled in the college of interdisciplinary studies, which allowed me to take whatever courses I liked from each of two concentrations. I stuck with biology and philosophy, in the interest of saving time and money, but I took classes like Cancer and Heart Disease, where we stuck strictly to the medicine, and a seminar on Kant, who is decidedly not a logical positivist, but rather a main figure in the Enlightenment period.

I was still nervous as hell, and reacting badly to any suggestions that I should do what was the most useful, or that I should ever question the value of my artistic side, or of the literary universal truths like love and compassion and pity and pride and all that other stuff William Faulkner talked about. But slowly I recovered, and the thesis was my final retching, the breaking of the fever and the healing between my broken halves.

So bear with me; it requires a little bit of background information, but I think it will be worth it.

My thesis centered on the question of the existence of the self. (Yes, there are people who get paid to do research on/write about whether or not they actually exist. Higher education FTW!) A group of cognitive biologists had proposed in the 1970’s, based on some experiments they did, that the self is simply the higher level of functioning that occurs when a lot of parts work together. In other words, all the different functions of your brain, when put together, can do more than what they can do separately, and that “more” is what we think of as the self. There is no actual self, they argued, it only seems like it to our experience.

This is something that Friedrich Nietzsche said a long time ago, except without any modern-day scientific evidence to back it up. So I wanted to explore how it had come about that, 100 years apart, two very different schools of thought had come to the same conclusion.

It got really interesting when I learned that the cognitive biologists were influenced heavily by the philosophies of Immanuel Kant. Nietzsche thought Kant was an idiot—and yet he agreed with the conclusions of a group of scientists who had studied Kant in depth and formulated their theories in the same vein.

The cognitive biologists were disturbed by the fact that something all humans seem to experience—the experience of having a “self” that is whole and which exists separately from other things—was contradicted by their experimental evidence. And, like me, they were bothered by the lack of meaning this suggested—if your self isn’t real, do you have a soul? What is the freaking point? And why the hell does it seem like we have a self if we really don’t?

The cognitive biologists tried to integrate Kant’s theory by arguing that people should try to experience their “lack-of-self,” thus bringing experience and reality into sync. They suggest trying Buddhist methodologies for achieving this. Basically, what they are arguing is that you should try to get a grasp of the self “as it really is;” or, in other words, that you should be objective about the origins of our subjectivity.

This is where Nietzsche’s genius comes in (and a little bit of my humble ability, as well). Nietzsche argued against Kant’s ideas for the very same reason, and said:

“Against the scientific prejudice.—The biggest fable of all is the fable of knowledge. One would like to know what things-in-themselves are; but behold, there are no things-in-themselves! But even supposing there were an in-itself, an unconditioned thing, it would for that very reason be unknowable! Something unconditioned cannot be known; otherwise it would not be unconditioned! (The Will toPower 555)”

Nietzsche has arrived at the observer’s paradox: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” You can’t know! Maybe it will only make a sound if someone is there to hear it, but you will never know the sound in and of itself, minus the experience of the observer. And in the same way, you can never know the reality of your self; you can only ever know how you experience it.

If you managed not to get lost along the way, there, you will see that my paper arrived at the same conclusion with which I was so uncomfortable only a year before: that there are no objective truths, and all knowledge is imperfect, and dependent on your own ability to observe.

The difference between my own answer and the idea that my science professors had offered me was not only that I had arrived at the conclusion myself, on my own terms. Nietzsche also offers a purpose, a meaning, along with his conclusion: growth. He argues that if there is no inherent meaning, all you can do is try to create it for yourself, by striving constantly to become a little bit better than what you were before. You can live in a state of becoming, and use the false idea of yourself to try to shape what is into what could be.

The best example I can give of Nietzsche’s idea of “meaning,” is, ironically enough, the idea of evolution. Life on this planet constantly evolves, always adapting to take better advantage of the resources around it. It has no specific goal, or purpose, and it will never reach a pinnacle, or perfection, but always it is growing and changing in a constant attempt to be better than before.

So maybe my professors were right, and there are no universal truths, and there is no inherent meaning. Maybe love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are static ideals, shadows that really mean very little. Maybe I don’t even have a self. But what I do have can always be better than what I had yesterday, and always I can strive to improve; and I can try on ideas and take them off again if they do not help me become better. That’s enough meaning, even for me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Reason #7 Why I Live In Arizona, cont'd

This is Usery Mountain:

That strip of light color you see is actually a wide band of bright yellow lichen, which does really well on the type of rock that is exposed there (don't remember what kind of rock that is; apologies.)

This is my friend Chris, the ecology TA:
He has a much bigger camera than I do.

This is the bitchin' sock tan-line I got from hiking the Usery Mountain ridgeline with my friend Chris, the ecology TA (and my special gift basket to those of you with a foot fetish):

(My calves aren't really that big. It's just the angle. )

Chris and I used to work on an ecology research grant together which required us to visit Usery Mountain Park at least once a week. On Friday he called me up to go have a beer with him and a former ranger at Usery, and we all got to talking about how beautiful the park was and how much we missed going there, and Chris and I resolved to go hiking on Sunday (the ranger didn't want to go seeing as she is still a ranger, albeit at a different park, and does that for a living).

So I strapped on my brand new running shoes:

and we headed out to Usery.
(Side note (with the disclaimer that I don't get paid to say this or have any affiliation with New Balance): I am obsessed with these shoes. These are the New Balance 840 trail runners; they are a slightly different version of the 800, which are the. best. shoes. ever. I've been wearing the 800 for two years now, and they basically feel like I'm wearing socks with a crapload of tread. Unfortunately, they were either sold out or else discontinued when I went to buy a new pair last week, so I bought the 840. I think the only difference is the 800 has a built-in tongue, which I loved because it doesn't do that annoying thing where it moves over and sits on the side of your foot after you wear the shoe for awhile. But the tread is the same, and the fit, and the material. If you're interested as to why I'm obsessed with a shoe that has virtually no support or padding beyond the tread, please note that in a year of running I've suffered no injuries, shinsplints, or any sort of discomfort, which is a big deal for a girl who tore her ACL and medial meniscus at the age of 13; and please check out this article. Also, I have tried Sauconys with moderate support to compensate for my slight pronation issue, and all they did was make my ankles feel like somebody was bending them the wrong way. Which, now that I think on it, is exactly what they were doing.)

Back to the hiking.

This is a saguaro in bloom:

So is this:

And that's why this is the perfect time of year to go hiking in Arizona.

The first part of the trail goes up to the Wind Cave, which is a hollow in the side of the mountain carved out by--you guessed it--the wind. The rest of the trail, the ridgeline we hiked, is not actually a Usery Park-sanctioned trail. It's technically a part of Tonto National Forest, and it's kind of nasty in places.

This is one of my favorite things about Usery Park: the giant Phoenix sign. It used to be a sign for airplanes, back when the suburban sprawl didn't reach quite so far out into the desert; now I think it's just a relic. Just underneath the sign sits the shooting range, and our whole hike was peppered with the sounds of gunfire at a distance.

Here's a better view of the lichen:

Here's a baby bird nesting in a palo verde that we saw at a rest stop on the way up to the Wind Cave:

Interesting fact about palo verde: they evolved photosynthesis in their bark, which is why it's green. I guess it takes a lot of energy and water to produce leaves in the desert heat, and the bark is a little more efficient.
Update: Erm, now that I've actually looked at this photo, I realize that this isn't a palo verde because it has brown bark. So I'm kind of a moron but the thing about palo verdes is still true so I'm leaving it in there.

A common species of lizard. Chris informed me that they're actually all female (technically hermaphroditic) and reproduce asexually:

A bee's nest in the ceiling of the Wind Cave. It's hard to see, but there's a hummingbird there feeding on the honey.

Four views from the southern edge of the ridgeline; east, southeast, south, and west, respectively:

A lovely windowrock view of Four Peaks:

A cholla bloom, and the view to the north:

Looking back at the southernmost peak of the ridgeline, where we had been standing:

A young saguaro:

A closeup of the spines of the saguaro, which evolved mostly to provide shade with the least amount of effort on the part of the plant:

(Disclaimer: Chris took this photo, which is why it's so awesomely good. I am still learning about macro functions, etc.)

A barrel cactus, from the top down. Did I mention I love plants?

Weaver's Needle, my very favorite rock formation:

The Phoenix sign, from the ridgeline:

We figured out you can see for about 60 miles in every direction.

Jojoba fruit:

My all-time favorite native plant, the ocotillo (which is technically a succulent and not a cactus), on a background of lichen:

Not sure what kind of cactus this is, but it's pretty!

The log book at the very top:

Four Peaks, from the top:

Looking northeast into Tonto National Forest:

Ocotillo and cholla sharing space. Not very comfortable cuddling, that.

More of the view from the top:

One of the more beautiful ocotillos I've seen, still with all its leaves:

A prickly pear in full bloom. Out on Rt. 88 there's a place that sells prickly pear ice cream, which I have yet to try.

A chain-fruit cholla:

And, finally, we have arrived at the end. To close, I leave you with a cactus that put me in mind of those images of a lonely steer skull, drying out in the desert sun. Sorry, I guess that's not a very happy image, but look how freakin cool it is:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reason #8 Why I Live In Arizona

I started running about a year ago because I began to notice how much of a difference regular exercise made in my mood and my energy levels. I was going through kind of a rough period and needed all the endorphins I could get, and when I moved into my current apartment I established a regular route through the neighborhood. I live near a set of man-made lakes with a lovely little trail that runs along part of them, and at six in the morning it's absolutely stunning. The other day I brought my camera along so I could share my mood-boosters with you, so this is what I see (in roughly the order I see it) every day I manage to drag my ass out of bed by 5:45:

Most days the moon is still out when I step out the door.

Bougainvillea! I'll save my rhapsody about bougainvillea for another day.

The first neighborhood street, and the point at which I usually wake up fully.

People really have some lovely flower gardens. Also, I love plants.

There is a species of palm native to North America. This is not it. But isn't it great? Doesn't it make you feel like you're on vacation...even though you're not?

This is the pathway leading up to the lake, through a little park. On Mondays and Wednesdays there are two ladies working through exercises with a trainer, and there is outdoor nautilus equipment available in the park.

There are ridiculous numbers of ducks on the lake, which makes me super happy because when I was little I used to feed the ducks at my grandparents' lakehouse with stale Wonderbread my grandma would give me. The part I can't capture in the pictures is how much noise all the birds are making at this hour; all the small birds are singing loudly and the ducks are flapping at each other and calling at the geese, and carp are breaching with their little popping sounds. Occasionally I see the blue heron that lives in the area. There's also a white crane, and these little king-fisher type birds that all perch on the edge of the lake and fish in the early mornings and late evenings.

Sunrise! Run is still feelin' pretty good.

This is the view around the bend in the lake path.

The community dock, and the random free-standing gate to prevent people who aren't "members" from parking their boats there. For some reason I find this thing hilarious. They could just swim if they were that desperate to park their boats there.
Last view of the main lake...
Until I turned around to see the carp breaching to catch flies on top of the water. Weirdest thing ever to watch.

The lovely little alleyway connecting the main lake to the smaller one. Just at the end is where I usually see the heron.

Very cool saguaro, almost in bloom, outside one of the neighborhood homes. Also the point where my run starts to hurt.

The LDS church that means I'm almost home. One thing about the Mormons, they have freaking great taste in architecture. The most beautiful buildings in the desert are usually theirs.

And, finally, a closeup of a bloom on a bush just outside my favorite house in the neighborhood, a lovely little grey number on the corner.