Monday, December 28, 2009

My Two Essays for Marlboro College

The first is my personal statement, in which I respond to the prompt: "Write a personal statement about who you are, how you think, what you value, and what issues and ideas interest you the most. Also tell us how your interest in Marlboro developed and how attending Marlboro College fits into your overall goals."

A Personal Statement for Marlboro College

From the moment I discovered Marlboro College it has held a distinct appeal for me. Even the aspects that may commonly scare prospective students away, from its secluded location to its small size, are attractive: I can't wait to get out of the suburbs and closer to nature, and Malboro College seems as close to the middle of “nowhere” as any college I've considered. Of course, what really draws me to the college is the character of its program: I am looking for academic intensity and intellectual seriousness. Marlboro College appears to be the school that will challenge and empower me to translate what I've learned so far - and doubtlessly the much greater amount I still have to learn - into the foundation I need to accomplish my long-term goals.

I graduated from Cass City High School in 2006, a small public high school in the very rural and conservative heart of the thumb of Michigan. While there were some positive exceptions, I consider most of my schooling there an overall detriment to my education. For various reasons I left the school disillusioned with the role of public schools and skeptical of the notion of “higher education.” My high school transcript is not particularly impressive, however this was and is not so much a reflection of my capacity for learning as it is of the boredom and apathy induced by the atmosphere and academics of Cass City High School, and much less is it a reflection of my desire to learn, which is stronger than ever.

I'd like to think a more important education began for me upon graduation. Almost immediately I started reading voraciously, and within a year I absorbed several dozen works of natural and social philosophy and science. During this period I developed or adopted many positions and beliefs on a range of contemporary problems, and have spent much of my time since writing and further enhancing my understanding of the philosophies and theories behind major social, political, economic, and ecological ideas. While my primary interest has been in political philosophy, I have also read many popular science books on evolutionary biology, anthropology, linguistics, astronomy, human ecology, and physics (which is my current niche of exploration). I am also beginning to introduce myself to subjects I have mostly neglected, including cultural studies, language, sociology, mathematics, computer science, and psychology.

My wide reading has inspired in me many reflections on the human condition, and has caused me to at least question and at best discard many underlying assumptions which I used to take for granted. While I am not nearly as ideologically hot-tempered as I used to be I still operate on the conviction that modern industrial civilization has been organized along lines that are ecologically unsustainable, socially stratifying, and politically and economically unjust. While the world's resources are carelessly depleted; while its wondrous and essential biodiversity is being erased; and while a significant portion of its populations starve or lack (or are kept from) the means to improve their lives, the wealthiest nations thoughtlessly embrace, or at best placidly tolerate, mindless consumer culture, the resurgences of jingoistic nationalism and corrupted religions, hollow social relations, junk popular science, and a polity that is increasingly dominated by the influences of business and finance.

Such is my take on the world as I see it, and my academic plans extend from these thoughts. I feel many of the problems we face today are worsened by a failing public discourse. So it is my ambition to use my new-found talents and understanding, achieved through the rigor of the Marlboro College program, to be a popularizer of knowledge in the tradition of Carl Sagan or Will Durant. I want to come away from Marlboro College in a position both to contribute to my field of study and to improve the public understanding of its subject matter, especially where it is socially relevant.

Though my independent study has been consistently invigorating, it has also been sporadic and somewhat unfocused, and has surely lacked elements that are crucial to a proper, effective education. This realization is what first brought me to the college search in the summer of 2009. Still feeling sour toward major academic institutions, I decided to search out small liberal arts colleges. Thanks to the advice of a friend's father, I happened upon Loren Pope's Colleges That Change Lives and, subsequently, Marlboro College. It advertised what immediately stuck out as precisely the type of program and environment I wanted to immerse myself in, and that feeling has only intensified as I have read more about the college. I hope to use the Marlboro College experience to coalesce my many fragmented ideas into a proper thesis (or several), and to build the skills I need to make any lasting contributions I can to the advancement of public knowledge and understanding, and by extension the realization of a freer, more just, and more sustainable society.

Next is my "expository writing sample," which is a straightforward analytical essay. It sums up my understanding of the process and role of the US media system. They say that they are looking for something which demonstrates my "social consciousness" so I thought the topic was appropriate, as well as happening to fall within my specialty. It is largely theoretical, and contains no case studies or real-world examples, as I felt they would lopside the essay too much, but perhaps I'm wrong. Also, the title is far too academic sounding and in that way may sound a bit presumptuous. Anyway:


The Social Cost of Market-Based News Dissemination in America



“Information is the currency of democracy” - Thomas Jefferson



Today more than ever the mass news media maintains a significant pressure on, and in certain situations entirely shapes, public discourse in America. It ceaselessly informs the opinions of ordinary Americans on a great variety of issues, from wars and financial crises to fashion and Hollywood gossip. As people become further removed from the realities of modern life – from increasingly esoteric scientific discoveries to the towering complexities and obfuscations of government decision-making – it has become necessary to examine more critically the mechanisms which relay information from the heights of academia and government to the everyday sensibilities of working Americans. Ideally, these mechanisms would operate in a way that enhances public knowledge and democratic and economic participation, contributing to the public interest. These mechanisms exist predominantly as businesses that compete with each other in the market for profit, and it turns out the costs of doing business – the exchanging of audiences for sponsorship – can have significant social consequences.

In a process that began in the nineteenth century with the advent of telegraphy and photography, and that exploded in the latter half of the twentieth, television broadcasting has replaced printed media and radio as the prevailing format of news dissemination in America. According to a poll conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2001, 53 percent of Americans rely primarily on television for their news, while newspaper readers make up only 29 percent of those polled. The shift from print media to electronic media has had a broadly negative impact, warns Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, on public knowledge and discourse in America. Postman argues that television as a media format – as opposed to books or early newspapers - is innately biased toward entertainment values, regardless of the type of program or content aired. He points out that any commercially successful model of television programming “offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend... and is largely aimed at emotional gratification.” He argues that if this model is the most successful in attracting viewers in general, and consequently (and consequentially) the advertisers that follow them, then even news programs must emulate it in order to secure the advertisers' sponsorship. This has meant the cutting of lengthy exposition, contextual analysis, and continuity of content from news programs in an attempt to make them more palatable to a perceived fickle consumer audience. He calls the information that is left over from this process disinformation, and he explains that this is not false information – as might be expected from the propaganda apparatus of a totalitarian state – but “misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.” What results is a necessarily distorted picture of the world, which is presented to the viewing (and voting) public as truth.

This problem is significantly expanded in the case of televised analysis and debate. Postman writes that “in part because television sells its time in seconds and minutes, in part because television must use images rather than words, in part because its audience can move freely to and from the television set, programs are structured so that almost each eight-minute segment may stand as a complete event in itself.” Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky extend this thought in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, explaining that “the technical structure of the media virtually compels adherence to conventional thoughts; nothing else can be expressed between two commercials... without the appearance of absurdity that is difficult to avoid when one is challenging familiar doctrine with no opportunity to develop facts or argument.” In this way the absence of exposition, context, and continuity has the effect of naturally shedding fringe and alternative viewpoints from televised discourse. It also serves to shut out dissenting voices from the dominating avenue of information dissemination, leaving only those that stick closer to traditional or more “moderate” lines of thought.

This is echoed in the central thesis of Herman and Chomsky's book, in which they establish a theoretical set of naturally emerging “filters” that determine de facto newsworthiness. When views and analyses that meaningfully challenge the status quo are denied access to the major channels of information flow for most Americans, they argue, the news media inadvertently end up serving elite and corporate interests. This is not the result of a conspiracy on the part of an interested class, they go on, but is largely an “outcome of the workings of market forces.” These “market forces” are the result of the advertising-dependent business model that dominates large media firms. In 2003, newspapers received on average 80% of their revenues by selling print space to advertisers, while virtually all of the revenue earned by television and radio broadcasters was through advertising. Herman and Chomsky write that “with advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers' choices influence media prosperity and survival.” It turns out that “in essence, the private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers).” When a news program or network carries subject matter that may be construed as politically radical or harmful to the national interest, or one that considers social perspectives and worldviews that are too far from established societal norms, it risks losing the essential support of its sponsors to other networks and programs that more strictly filter their content. What is left is a situation in which news media companies must decide between presenting a genuine variety of views and analyses on any pertinent but controversial topic or maintaining their competitiveness as mediums for advertisement, and thus their profitability and survival as businesses. The public is then left without ready access to a great deal of relevant information that would enable them to critically observe and affect the actions of their government.

In order to actively participate in - or even to effectively observe - government decision-making, citizens require a genuine range of views and analyses, lest only established or traditional doctrines prevail. It has long been assumed that free access to information is a cornerstone of healthy democracies. As Thomas Ferguson explains in The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money Driven Political Systems, “to effectively control governments, ordinary voters require strong channels that directly facilitate mass deliberation and expression.” When economic realities constrict the dominant channels of deliberation and expression, citizens must expend considerable effort in order to obtain the information that does not make it through the news media filters, whether by seeking out alternative perspectives on the Internet or in independent magazines and newspapers. This leads to less political participation on the part of working Americans, as "even highly motivated voters face comparatively enormous costs when they attempt to acquire, evaluate, and act upon political information." Consequently, Ferguson argues, this has tended toward more political participation on the part of businesses, whose costs of gathering and acting on information are comparatively low - especially when weighed against the potential benefits of influence over political processes. Ordinary Americans are left behind as power shifts to corporations, which have now come to enjoy supreme influence over the outcomes of elections, concludes Ferguson. If we are to take democracy – of, by, and for the people - as a desirable mode of government, then it follows that the resulting gap in political influence, partially a consequence of uneven access to information, between ordinary citizens and corporations is detrimental to American democracy.

These effects represent a significant market failure – a situation in which the free market has produced an inefficient and socially undesirable effect. Whenever public awareness and understanding of social, political, economic, and ecological problems is limited as a result of natural market processes, a significant social cost has been incurred, one which reduces the public's capacity for meaningful participation in democratic processes. At its worst, the resulting situation is a severe asymmetry of information between social classes and a deficit of democracy. As in other examples of market failure – the most recognized being climate change as a result of unchecked industrial activity – reforms or the development of viable alternatives to the major news media have become necessary to ensure equal access to information amongst private citizens, and by extension the healthy functioning of democracy in America.



Let me know what one thinks. Any glaring errors? Considering that I have not attended college yet and most every contributor to this blog has, lemme know if you think these are what a small liberal arts college may be looking for. Thanksss.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sojourns - Journal, Memory, Land

From Sojourns Magazine, winter/spring '09 issue

Times I Have Seen The Animals


Craig Childs
I was very young when I woke before dawn and grabbed the small knapsack beside the bed.  In it I placed a spiral notepad, a sharpened pencil, a paper bag containing breakfast, and a heavy thrift-store tape recorder with grossly oversized buttons.  I walked outside, through the neighborhood, and at the edge of a field full of red-winged blackbirds, I took out the tape recorder.  Their officious little prattle lifted like shouts from the stock market floor.  I pushed record and listened.

In time I moved on; recording birds in different trees, in other lots.  I ate cold toast with careful bites.  Writing things down: the time, the place, what the bird looked like.  My penmanship as shaky, typical for elementary school.  I wanted so badly to be able to write like an adult.  Occasionally I would just make loops ith the pencil so that it looked like cursive.  I worked at the entries, putting the last letter or two of a word on the next line if it wouldn't fit.  It was important, as important as anything, and I acted as if I knew what I was doing, as if I knew something about birds.  Which I did not.  I understood only that they flew and that they did it well.  I would hold the pencil in my teeth and hum thoughtfully as I had seen the adults do. 

With my tape recorder, I walked these fields fanning below the east side of the Rock Mountains in Colorado.  So rarely was I awake at this time of the day that it felt like my birthday or Thanksgiving.  I had not known that the sunrise was so lavish and that you could actually feel the color when it reached your face.  I had a fantasy of running away to the woods, becoming a nomad and a hermit, but soon enough the sixty minutes of tape ran out.  I returned home. . .

Now I go out walking.  Sometimes for a hundred miles, circling mountain ranges or following canyons for weeks and months.  More often it is a quarter mile in an afternoon shuffling around the trees, looking for a soft place to sit.  Out of habit, my eyes train on shapes and movements, and if I see any animal, it is invariably unexpected.  I have no idea how proficient trackers do it - choosing their animal, then finding it.  I choose a coyote and I get a very rainy day.  I choose an elk and get a deer mouse.  Then a mountain lion comes from behind while I am crouched, looking at its tracks.

To see the animal, you must first remain very still.  You may have to huddle in the dark of a street culvert for three nights before the raccoon comes.  you may have to sit naked on the tundra before the grizzly finds you.  Or you will simply have to be there, driving the highway the moment that a caravan of unhurried red-backed salamanders passes from one side to the other.  That is when you must leave your car and get on hands and knees in the roadway.  Just be careful not to touch the salamanders, because the acid from your fingertips will burn into their backs.  When you encounter an animal, it may be as startling and quick as the buzz of a rattlesnake.  Or you may have time to note the shift of wind and the daily motions of light.

Times that I have seen the animals have been like knife cuts in fabric.  Through these stabs I could see a second world.  There were stories of evolutions and hunger and death.  Cross sections of genetic histories and predator-prey relationships, of lives as cryptic  as blood paths in snow.  I have talked with those at the Division of Wildlife who know.  I have rummaged through clutters of skulls and skeletons in a musty museum basement and read the reports of field biologists.  But it is outside where the grip of the story lies.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ideology

 An issue that has been haunting my thoughts of late is the extent and nature of the power and influence of ideas.  I found myself pulled from the idea that "history is made by great individuals, great events, and great ideas," one traditional conception, towards the opposite feeling, by learning of new theories in political science and filling my mind with the idea that everything we know is a product of naturally emergent behaviors and that our understandings of social phenomena need to reflect that. 

Watching Golden Rule introduced me to a wholly new and much more satisfying way to understand electoral politics.  That is, elections and particularly party politics shouldn't be seen as indicative of the feelings and intellectual or sentimental trends of average voters, but rather as the shifting organization of blocs of investors (i.e., businesses and the wealthy) in conflict over issues of national policy that make a great deal of difference to their own interests.  As I still had many questions, I decided to read the book.1  Having now finished the first chapter, I feel ready to phrase these questions.

The overall question here is "What is the relationship between ideas and events in history?"

By ideas, I mean particularly those we think of as profound, progressive, and as having 'shaped the course of history' - e.g., Abolitionism, Marxism, Human Rights, Constitutions, Capitalism, etc.  I don't mean to doubt the impact of ideas at all - certainly ideas make a very great deal of difference to each of us individually.  However, I want to plumb the character of the interactions between the rise in prevalence of great ideas and the social conditions that surround them (both as causes and effects).  It is not a question that has a direct answer, of course, but I'm sure we can arrive at something more insightful and informative than merely writing it off as 'complicated.'

I think the example of Abolitionism will be best suited to our particular group's interests.  Alex has in the past cited the abolition of slavery as proof of the progressive enlightenment of humanity's 'moral compass' over time.  He argues that the fact that at one time, slavery was both widespread and largely unquestioned morally, and the fact that it is now only an aberration and condemned by the majority of the world indicates that the populace has grown to realize that slavery is wrong.  This is certainly true, but the question for us is whether this idea was the impetus for the abolition of slavery, or whether it is a side effect of other trends that more directly led to the abolition of slavery.  As Ferguson points out, the business magnates funding abolitionist groups in the years before the Civil War were the grandchildren of men who thought nothing of the fact that ships they owned were bearing slaves to the New World.  And indeed, it is hard for me to believe that some trend towards moral tenderness over the millennia made the idea of abolishing slavery, which has undoubtedly been around in some form since slavery began, suddenly direly urgent to the people of the Northern US. 

The answer seems to lie in some middle ground.  Ideas are somehow inextricable from political movements, but the movements themselves rely on some more concrete economic driving force.  Would be interesting to discuss/learn of the ways the progression of the history of ideas has been thus moved and shaped by economics and political science; to see how ideas don't move towards an ever more complex and accurate and interesting form merely by building on the shoulders of their predecessors. 

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Footnotes
1.  After reading the first chapter of the book, I realized that Ferguson's thesis does not mean that ideologies are not driving forces in politics because they are not capable of doing so, but rather because ideologies are relevant only to real people.  The entities driving politics today are profit-seeking bodies investing in politics not to bring about a Utopian state according to any ideology, but rather in order to protect their interests and increase their profits.  As Ferguson notes, it is not impossible that the people become major investors in politics, and, in such a situation, the interests of the people would be brought about however they saw fit.  This manifestation would presumably correspond to the ideologies of the populace. 

Essay

Ellicottville, New York. October. 2:30 AM.
Two black cats fight in the street next to the Curly-Q Fries buggy. Their bodies heave under the pale streetlights until one cat flees, a dart shot across the courthouse lawn. I’m driving through a small town bisected by a two-lane highway that meanders through western New York. This town is shaped by migrators--the froth of cars on the highway, and the affluent skiers that drift north on cold weekends, pumping blood into the shops at Ellicottville’s center. Tonight, mine is the sole car on the highway, and the skiers will not come for months. The only discernible life here at this hour is a couple standing together in front of the closed, dimly night-lit stores that sell decorative furniture and fleece jackets. The couple stands in strange juxtaposition with the quaint shops and clean, brick streets--the man is fat, wearing all black, and is maybe 30. The woman has bleached blond hair and dark eye makeup. They embrace under the streetlights and glare at my headlights as I pass.

I have sunk into the rhythm of night consciousness. Mozart’s wife used to read to him while he composed so that his occupied senses would not distract him from the music. The motion of the car and the repetitive, dark-engulfed scenery outside have the same effect on me; my thoughts tumble unfiltered as I watch the road. In particular, I am noticing the details I typically miss--the imprints and debris of people’s lives, like the abandoned newspaper by the drainage grate or the path feet have eroded in the courthouse lawn. Oddly, seeing this town without people is a startling reminder that people exist.

As I drive, the quality of Ellicottville’s streetlights evokes the small, Midwestern town where I spent late elementary and middle school, and my memory folds in on itself. I choke on details--the abandoned house on our street, former object of my obsession; how I would sneak into the backyard and squint through its grimy windows at the darkness inside. And the ice cream shop a few streets from my house that provided a succession of vanilla soft-serve with sprinkles on the days it was too hot to play outside. Specifically, Ellicottville’s streetlights reference a night in sixth grade when my parents and I ate dinner at the home of a boy in my class whose stepmom worked with my dad. Our parents were drunk and the boy Keenan and I asked to go out and play in the dark--permission was easily granted. We collected Calvin and James, classmates in the neighborhood, and roamed the October streets, tumbling through backyards, while careful to trespass only in grass belonging to old ladies James knew or to friends of Calvin's parents.

We hid from one another in the damp boxes slumped on curbs for trash pickup and behind the sequences of shrubs that characterize Midwestern college towns. When desperate to be concealed, we folded our bodies into the shadows of houses and cars, breathless and delirious as we waited to be discovered. Once tired of hiding, we dragged ourselves panting through darkened neighborhoods under the yellow-gray light diffusing from streetlights high above our heads. Passing a familiar video store, James pointed to a flagpole next to an illuminated law firm sign in the parking lot. He lowered his voice and shared a secret: while holding the flagpole with one hand, a person, even a small one, could lean forward, touch the metal base of the sign and receive the mildest of electric shocks. He demonstrated and we followed, delighted by the revelation that electricity had slept under our gazes.

Secrets like James’ peppered our lives then. Once, a neighbor ripped up his sidewalk to make a flowerbed, and I dragged my dad’s shovel over to help excavate. Treasures surfaced in the dirt--toy soldiers, a spoon, a child’s bracelet. My neighbor pulled up a caramel-colored marble, polished it on his shirt and handed it to me. It’s glazed wood, he said. An antique. Worth 100 dollars at least. I never checked the fact, but kept the marble in sacred spaces--in my bedpost (home to the yellow, never-inflated balloon that held the hundred dollar bill my uncle gave me at his wedding), in an altoids tin in my sock drawer, and then in a jewelry box decorated with the face of the Virgin that I inherited from my Catholic grandmother. I always knew where the marble was, and I worshiped the mystery of its past. Then, when grass grew over the demolished sidewalk where it had miraculously sprung from the earth, I made a new discovery--the height difference between the grass and the cement of the sidewalk next door formed a sort of ramp, over which I rode my bike continuously all spring and into the summer.

These secrets were my favorite secrets of elementary school. Whispered accounts of first kisses lost potency after their initial rush, but the visceral excitement of James’ flagpole shock reignited each time my dad and I passed the law firm parking lot on our way to rent a video. While the flagpole and sign were too banal to merit a second look from my dad, my chest warmed with privileged knowledge as we passed. In that way, those secrets gave us power. Our parents could differentiate the highways and navigate the class structure of the university in town, but we knew our environment in intricate detail. We could recite what all the graffiti on the dumpsters near our houses said and we knew which trees were best to climb. This was our independence strategy--the details that structured our lives were alien to our parents, and also benign. We could control them ourselves without help or interference.

But my attention returns to Ellicottville when 219 North turns down a residential street, displaying quaint, modest homes and leafy oaks that are beginning to redden in response to early October. Most of the windows are dark, and I notice that I instinctively search for the lights left on. They tend to be at the backs of houses. Small lamps that illuminate swaths of kitchen or living room--a piano, a leather armchair, a knife left on the table by the sink. In one house, muffled light seeps through an upstairs curtain, and I think: bedroom. I imagine the person who might be inside, maybe a victim of fall insomnia like myself, and I immediately understand how far I am from the childish consciousness of elementary school.
Sometime around puberty, our lives became about people, not places or things. Independence meant embracing the adult ethics to which we were becoming attuned. We learned to structure our lives through more nuanced interactions than those with our physical environment. This enriched us in some ways--friendships were no longer simply conspiratorial--but it impoverished us, as well. For children, social formality was dispensable as long as we had apparent good intentions. We didn't know all the rules, and if we did, we broke them. We talked to strangers, walked on neighbors’ properties, picked their flowers, touched their lawn ornaments, but we were earnest. We were curious and vigorous and unselfconscious in our desires. Truly, we were charmed.

Now, far removed from that, I cannot go back. I can only be reminded from time to time, in places like Ellicotville whose night incarnation accentuates the details of physical environment, of what the world seemed through my childhood eyes. But my consciousness is richer now, and in every place I go, I feel a communion with its humanity more than an appreciation for its sights. In Ellicottville, my sympathy is with the strange couple alone on the street and with the few dispersed residents whose curtained lights indicate that they are still awake. I do not lament this change in me, but as I follow 219 North out of town, the reflections of my headlights on the pavement touch the squares of curtained window light spilling onto the highway. It’s a kind of prayer.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Humble Piece of Reverence Towards Being

I have for a very long time been intending to express in writing some intuited revelations and feelings about Being, Time, and Awareness.  This is that expression.  I do not intend for it to advance an argument or prove anything, because the things I have to say have already been well established or are simply self-evident.  The point is rather to reflect on several truths that I find terrifically affecting and profound. 

My feelings about time were the impetus for this post, so it seems appropriate to begin there.  For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the passing of time.  I find it amazing to imagine past moments and future ones, knowing that I will experience them with the same immediacy and vivacity I am living right now.  It is somewhat scary to know that the day of your death will arrive just as quickly from this moment as the present did from your childhood.  Not that the remainder of your life will even pass terribly quickly, or be any less fulfilling than you hope it to be; the fact that it is true at all that time is inexorable and that there is an end is affective enough in and of itself. 

The other idea arose from several quotes I found striking for some reason I didn't quite understand at the time I read them:

"a self-invented word" - as in, a word that invented itself, a word independent of thinkers and writers and, well, inventors of words.  I have no idea where I read this. 

". . . strange, intimate music which seemed to be submerged in itself, to be listening to itself; . . ." - from Demian, by Hermann Hesse.


These phrases stuck with me, and gained meaning for me as I came to my current superficial understanding of George Berkeley's Idealism.  The relevant thesis of this philosophy is that "there are no material objects, only minds and ideas in those minds."  That is, existence depends on perception, and it is therefore meaningless to speak of anything as existing when it is not being perceived.  As I first grasped this, I recognized its truth as irrefutable but irrelevant.  (There is a David Hume quote to that effect, which I can't seem to find at the moment.) 

As our Freshman Studies class discussed Kurosawa's film Rashomon, several of my classmates said things to the effect of "What if there is no objective reality?"  When put it this way, Berkeley's Immaterialism seems quite invalid.  Not logically fallacious, but something that only has meaning within the context of human language and thought and is only true within that context.  To say there is no objective reality at all is absurd, since there is obviously something, and subjective things are contingent on some objective thing - the mind itself, if nothing else.  Objective reality without subjective perception thereof is easily understood (if not, in deference to Berkeley, logically meaningful or imaginable).  And while objective reality may be counter-intuitive in the thick of subjective personal existence, it is quite intuitive in the context of science.

This is the essence of a feeling that I have found to be the most profound and affecting: the illusion of perception or understanding of things-as-they-are, of objective reality.  I get this feeling in nature most of all.  I find it in the sound of leaves rustled by wind sleeping in a tent at night.  Mountains, once they have become vague entities - mere silhouettes - in the twilight, are beings that tangibly flaunt the fact of their Objective Being, the undeniable Fact that they have existed for millions of years quite independent of any perceiving eye.  It was partly in search of this feeling that I went to three National Parks over winter break this year. 

A more straightforward feeling is  "How Strange It Is to Be Anything At All" (from In The Aeroplane Over the Sea).  It's something I'm sure we've all felt, but it's worth reflecting on.  The fact that an objective Universe, existing unperceived for untold billions of years, developed, through naturally emergent phenomena, beings aware of it subjectively, is unfathomably amazing, for its improbability and for its own innate, ineffable wonder.  Lawrence Weschler expresses this much more articulately than I ever could:


"Pop quiz in seventh grade English. The teacher has her class address a simple question in the form of an impromptu essay: What is the purpose of human existence on earth? And she gives the kids fifteen minutes.
She gets a variety of responses, and one of them, from an at-that-time eleven-year-old girl (who, for the purposes of this essay, we will call my daughter, Sara), goes like this:

WHY IS THE HUMAN ON EARTH? I believe that there is, despite the fact that we humans have done so much damage to the world, a reason for our existence on this planet. I think we are here because the universe, with all it’s wonder and balance and logic, needs to be marveled at, and we are the only species (to our knowledge) that has the ability to do so. We are the one species that does not simply except what is around us, but also asks why it is around us, and how it works. We are here because without us here to study it, the amazing complexity of the world would be wasted. And finally, we are here because the universe needs an entity to ask why it is here."
 "Wonder and balance and logic, indeed—to which one might add beauty and grace. But all of it—and this is Sara’s crucial insight—all of it is for naught (or at any rate for naught in terms of “wonder” and “balance” and “logic” and “beauty” and “grace”) without the necessarily fragile and puny and utterly contingent human gaze.

Why is there anything, ask the philosophers, with their very first originary question, rather than simply just nothing at all? To which might now be added: And why—however possibly could there be—anything as stupendously, improbably, and heart-rendingly lovely as this? But that last formulation in turn opens out upon a greater wonder still, the shivering, shimmering ghost at the heart of the great machine: Given that there is something rather than nothing, why, how does it come to be (after all, how easily could it never have come to be!) (and how terrifyingly easily could it all yet cease to be) that embedded in its midst there is something capable of becoming aware of, let alone appreciating, all that splendor?"

What strikes me about this is that it is wrong, though not in spirit: the Universe very much does not need anything to wonder at it or ask why it is there.  If it did, we would be necessary rather than contingent, and there would be nothing surprising at all about existing.  Berkeley would, in a small but consequential sense, be right.

The thing that always baffled me, as far back as I can remember, was that I was me and not anyone else.  Why I am looking in on the Universe from this little portal of subjectivity and not from yours, or from that of a pre-historic dog?  It's not a question with an answer, because its answer is a tautology, but it's baffling for all that.  This is, I think, the question that begs the most for me to ascribe meaning to my life - though as it is a moot question, that ascription has grim prospects.

Nested Colons: A corollary: Perhaps the one idea of all of these that you may not have considered before: Since our consciousness is a naturally emergent property of the Universe and a product of evolution, our senses and our capacity for understanding are limited to the side effects of evolutionary necessity.  The whole nature of the way we understand the world is just due to happenstance, the least possible attributes and skills and senses we need to survive: we are not "put here to understand the Universe."  We try to do so only because we don't have anything better to do.  And really, can you imagine anything more worthwhile to aspire to, though we can never achieve it?