Sunday, August 19, 2012


"These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present."
                                                               - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!"
                                          - Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

When I was in college, I came across Plato's book The Apology. Like most of Plato's works, this one has Socrates as its main character. I had been reading Plato, and I knew Socrates had been tried for corrupting the youth of Athens, and for not believing in the gods of the city. He was, of course, found guilty, and ordered to commit suicide by drinking hemlock. I knew enough about Socrates to find it odd that he would have apologized for his actions, even in the face of death. And sure enough, he didn't, at least not in the usual sense of the term. I turns out the older meaning of “apology” is “a defense, excuse, or justification in speech or writing, as for a cause or doctrine”. The word didn't imply any expression of regret until the 1700's. Socrates wasn't apologizing, in today's sense of the word. He was defending himself; explaining the reasons for his actions. To express this idea today, you have to borrow the original Greek word: apologia.

I'm no Socrates—not in intellect or in bravery—but as I sit here on a rainy day at the age of forty, I feel like it's a good time to compose my own apologia. Or perhaps it should be an apology. I'm not sure yet, and that's part of the reason I'm sitting down to think it over. It's not that I've been corrupting any of the youth. I don't have a lot of contact with the youth, really, and that's one thing I'll be talking about. And, while I'm agnostic about the existence of God, I suppose it is true that I don't pay normal levels of respect to many of the other gods worshiped by wide swaths of our society; gods with names like Conformity, Consumption, and Image. I'm not immune to their influence, but I do try to resist it. What I really feel like I need to explain is my lifestyle. I'm writing this in rented shotgun apartment, half of a duplex in a half-seedy part of town (I don't mean I'm poor. I could buy a basic house if I wanted to). I live here with my bulldog, Louie. I don't have a TV. I've never been married, and I have no kids. Sometimes I talk to people and realize, with a jolt of surprise, that they see these things and feel sorry for me, assuming I must be unhappy with such a solitary, spare life. But I'm not unhappy, and I don't even find it very lonely (though I do miss friends and family around the country). I may be weird, but I ain't sad and lonely.

But as I said, I'm forty. It's a fulcrum age, an age to take stock. I've walked up the young side of the see-saw; now I want to balance for a while and look around before putting any more weight on the other side. I feel a little self-indulgent writing an essay entirely about myself, but I think it's worthwhile for two reasons. First, I want to explain to people who know me why I have lived the way I have (of course, that assumes I really know why, which may be a big assumption). Second, since writing forces you to make your thoughts clearer, I want to work out for myself what it is about me that's caused me to live the way I have, and think about whether or not I should continue this lifestyle. Is my lifestyle solitary and reflective, or detached and self-indulgent? Is it justified? Is it wise to spend the second half of one's life this way? These are important questions, and worth a little self-reflection.

So why do I live this way? Here's the short answer, for people who don't want to slog through the personal history below: I live this way because it lets me do what I want to do, which is try to learn as much as I can about this world while I'm in it. What I have wanted most, for the last 15 years or so, is time. Time to read and learn and think. Most people don't have much time to do these things. They have home improvement projects to work on, mortgages to pay, kids to take to cheerleading and soccer practice. If you have a job, a spouse, a couple of kids, a big house with a big mortgage, and a car or two to pay off, you probably don't have a lot of time or energy to think about life's big questions. If you do, then hats off to you, because I couldn't find the time. Of course, most people should have the kids and the spouse (if not the giant house and overstuffed schedule), because that's what keeps the human race going. And that's what most people want. Just not me, or not so far. What drives me is curiosity, and the overwhelming sense that life is short. I see workaholics, and I always figure they must be very confident in the afterlife. An atheist workaholic is a complete mystery to me, unless they are saving lives in their job. Here's why: I very much doubt that there's a heaven, and even if there is, I think it's crazy to shortchange this life in expectation of an afterlife which has never been proven to exist. What if this is all we get? Shouldn't we set aside some time to figure out what it's all about, or at least try?

Think about how fleeting we really are. Imagine, as Carl Sagan asked us to, collapsing the age of the universe into one year, with the Big Bang ringing in the new year on Janurary 1st. The Earth wouldn't form until September 14th. Dinosaurs would rise and fall between December 24th and 28th. Humans wouldn't appear until around 10:35 pm on December 31, and all of written history would take up the last few seconds before midnight. An entire human life would last less than a quarter of a second, less than the proverbial blink of an eye. Imperceptible. Our days are short, and time is precious. I want to keep a chunk of it, and set it aside for trying to understand this crazy old world; for trying to appreciate its wonders, and perhaps to show other people how wondrous they really are. As I said, not everyone should go through life single and childless so they can think more about the mysteries of creation. But that doesn't mean nobody should. I've stepped off of the normal path of American life, to check out some of the things I've seen out there and report back on them. The reporting back is essential. If I didn't try to convey the results of what I'm finding to others, my explorations would be pure self-indulgence. That's why I write this blog, and why I've made educational posters and websites. Anyway, if you want to know why my lifestyle is so weird, that's the short answer. The longer answer—or my best theory about it—appears below, but I don't expect many people besides me to find it interesting.


Good grief, this is self-indulgent. Oh, well, know thyself, and all that. Besides, it's raining outside. Actually, it would probably be useful for everybody to do this every decade or so, to track how much they've changed. And that might be a rationalization....

OK, anyway, I figure if I want to understand myself intellectually, I need to look two things: my basic personality traits, and the ideas and events that have changed the way I think. As for traits, I've always been unusually solitary, curious, easily-distracted, sensitive, low-energy, and, as a child, depressive. However, I was always very independent-minded. I never followed the crowd as much as most, and I never liked being told what to do. So I'll take a look at those things one by one:

Solitary: I was always an introverted kid; quiet, shy and socially anxious. When other kids roughhoused and shouted, I usually backed-off. That wasn't how I wanted to play. I spent a lot of time by myself, and I didn't mind, except that the other kids sometimes made fun of me for it. Today I'm still unusually solitary and still don't talk a lot, but I'm not really shy. I'm usually friendly and confident, but too much interaction with other people still wears me out.

Curious: I'm as curious as anyone I know. I'm constantly gobsmacked by the wonder of it all, especially of nature. I always have been, except for the hormone-addled teen years, when I was mostly curious about girls. I was one of those kids who checks out all the nonfiction books in the school library, spends time walking in the woods, and asks for chemistry sets for Christmas. I'm capable of becoming interested, for a little while, in just about anything. That's why I became a reference librarian.

Easily distracted: This is probably the flip side of curiosity. I don't have trouble paying attention. I just have trouble paying attention to things I'm not interested in. I'm not absent-minded; I'm elsewhere-minded. I always thought I was like someone with ADHD, except without the hyperactive. Then, a few weeks ago, I read that there were two kinds of ADHD: the hyperactive type and the inattentive type. Hmmm.

Low-energy: I've never been one of those high-energy types. In fact, those are some of the only people I really envy. When I come home from work, I usually just want to lay on the couch and read. Or nap. I would give everything I own to be one of those people who enjoy staying active all day long. Everything except for my bulldog. I'm keeping him.

Depressive: As for depressive, I was one of those kids that worried all the time. I remember asking my mom when I was very little if I would ever have to go to war. I think I was kind of a downer to be around sometimes. Looking back, I see that depression came and went all through my youth, and I can mark the times when it hit—fifth grade, sixth grade, tenth grade, 3rd year in college. Finally I got medication for it. I still take it, and if I get off it, I start getting depressed again. It dulls my emotions a little, but slightly unemotional is better than being in deep despair; negative and fretful all the time. If you've never been depressed, believe me, it is very real, and really awful. Maybe I shouldn't mention the medication, but I don't think people who benefit from it should be ashamed of taking it. Should anemic people be ashamed of taking iron supplements?

Independent: While I had the greatest parents I can imagine, there was one thing I always hated about the basic childhood condition. You're always being told what to do. It's unavoidable, of course. I'm a firm believer that kids would grow up to be savages if they weren't made to be polite and respectful. But I didn't like it. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I was independent-minded in other ways, too. I didn't think the way my friends did about everything, and I didn't follow every trend (though I did follow some, especially as a teenager). I always had a basic sense that a lot of the things people did, and cared about, just didn't make sense. As a kid, I always marveled at the fact that, as full of wonders as this world is, we spend all day in school as kids, and even more of the day at work as grownups, in order to keep running on an escalating treadmill of material things that mostly have little to do with those wonders. I always dreaded the thought that when you grow up you have to spend most of your waking life working. I'm still kind of amazed we haven't figured out a better way to live. Anyway, the independent thing has just gotten stronger with age. I may have achieved full-on cussedness now.

All these tendencies are things I remember about myself from earliest childhood. Now for ideas and events that influenced how I think. These, of course, were pretty vague when I was a kid.

Nature: The big idea I always had—the main thing that struck me intellectually and emotionally—was the beauty and balance and wonder of nature. Nature was always the ultimate standard of beauty and harmony for me when I was a kid. Growing up, nature always seemed more “real” to me. A lot of what people did just seemed sort of made up and arbitrary. It still does, to some extent. Of course, now I've modified my views on nature. I now realize that nature is only harmonious in certain ways.  It is completely amoral, and often horrifying; and we are right to try to rise above it in some ways. Still, we are a part of nature--a tiny aberration in a vast universe we barely understand, and we shouldn't forget it.

Evolution: Since probably 6th or 7th grade, the idea of evolution made sense to me. So did the idea that the Bible couldn't possibly all be literally true. Noah couldn't have gotten all the animals on Earth in an ark. God didn't create the world by crude magic in 6 days. Once I heard that idea that all living things were related, and that they had evolved over countless ages through variation and selection of the traits that happen to work, it made perfect sense. Now I think that biological evolution is just one example of a basic pattern of creativity that nature uses everywhere: immune systems, learning, brainstorming, the evolution of cultures, memes on the internet; all those things can work very much like biological evolution.

Aversion to church: I went to Baptist churches as a small child. The one my grandparents took me too had a real hellfire and brimstone preacher. Later, my parents switched to a Methodist church, which was much more moderate. But I still didn't like going. I was skeptical about most of the dogmas, and I didn't like the sense of guilt that seemed to pervade everything. The idea that we're all horrible and deserve nothing more than to go to hell, and only by the grace of God would we be saved—if that isn't true, then it's one of the worst ideas anyone ever had. I didn't like the sterileness of church, the goody-goodyness, the canting phrases that people adopted while they were there. You couldn't play real rock'n roll in church; it had to be a declawed, watered-down version. Maybe part of my aversion to church was my solitary nature kicking in. The group-oriented touchy-feeliness of it, the baring of feelings with people I wasn't otherwise close to; it made me feel ill, like someone was touching me that I didn't want touching me.

All those views--about nature, evolution, and religion--are all attitudes that I had from early on; middle school at the latest. Around 7th grade, I can actually start tracking how my views changed, more or less year by year. Around that time—around the time kids start getting into sports and cheerleading—I started wanting to be popular. I started spending less time thinking about nature and ideas, and more time about how to be liked (I was well-enough liked, and not a complete poindexter; I just wasn't one of the popular, ringleader-type kids). While I had been attracted to pretty girls as long as I could remember, now I was getting confident enough to try to figure out how to get them to like me. Then I got into gymnastics, and started to get muscles. When I got to high school I realized I wasn't--as I had always assumed--ugly. In fact, I was pretty cute, and the older girls liked to smile and talk to me; to try to made me blush. I started going to parties, and learned that if you talk to a girl for a while and she smiles at you, she would probably be quite willing to spend the next little while kissing you. I ran track in the spring, so I knew all the athlete guys, and they respected me since, because of gymnastics, I could bench press more than they could. I never turned into one of the really popular kids, but I forgot about being the brainy kid. I stopped reading books in high school. I started equating intellectualism with the music I listened to, as many kids do. I lived in a town of 2,000 people in the Arkansas Ozarks, and so my friends and I all considered ourselves superior because we listened to classic rock, not top forty pop or country. Yep, I was a real intellectual.

I went to college a year early in a bigger small town in Arkansas, joined a fraternity, and had the time of my life. If you had pinned me down about politics, would have probably said I was a Republican. Not the religious kind, though I would have still called myself a Christian. My friends mostly wanted to make a lot of money, and so did I. I had a vague notion that the survival of the fittest idea applied in society as well as nature, so I guess I was a sort of half-assed social Darwinist who thought most poor people had nobody to blame but themselves (hey, lots of people never grow out of this). I got preppy--what can I say, I was seventeen--I've grown up since, and so have the people I was hanging out with. Well, most of them have. But I started to have a bit of an intellectual awakening my freshman year. I took an anthropology class, and while the teacher was mortally boring, we were reading about other cultures around the world that were shockingly different from ours. I started to think, or think again, that maybe our culture was just as arbitrary. Who says ours is the right way? My conservatism, never very well-founded, was starting to totter.

Because I had gone to college early, I didn't discover I was eligible for some good scholarships until my second semester in college. The most generous was at the University of New Orleans, where a Texas oil millionaire named Patrick Taylor had endowed a scholarship for kids like me, who happened to do well on standardized tests. In New Orleans I met a very different group of friends, from all around the country. They were mostly shockingly smart, and many of them were from big cities, so they were much more urbane than me. This was one of the last years that “alternative” kids were still actually alternative, and I started to question my preppiness. I learned that maybe classic rock wasn't the only kind of music that could be good. I took a sociology class, and started to think that maybe you couldn't reasonably expect people born in squalor—the kind of squalor I was seeing in New Orleans—to lift themselves up by their bootstraps with no help. Maybe it wasn't immoral to level the playing field a little.

I also took a philosophy class, and learned how mind-bending and fascinating philosophy could be. I read Descartes, and learned the following big idea: maybe we should question absolutely everything, and whatever remains as undeniably true is what is really true. Descartes went in a different direction with this than me, but the basic idea stuck, and has been with me ever since. I changed my major from pre-med to philosophy (I wasn't studious enough for pre-med, and I knew it). Besides, all the philosophy professors were quirky New Orleans characters who made philosophy seem exciting.
I also rediscovered my love of nature. New Orleans' flatness made me realize how much I liked the mountains in Arkansas, and I was dying to go for a hike. I would drive across the tall bridges over the Mississippi River, just to get a brief view off into the distance. Once, my sister visited, and she was talking about books with some of my friends. I realized I had almost stopped reading books outside of school, so I started again, and soon became rabid about it. In Arkansas, all my friends took the truth of Christianity for granted, though they weren't all biblical literalists. In New Orleans, I started meeting really smart, nice people who said matter-of-factly that they weren't religious. All the ideas from church that seemed uncomfortably at odds with science--the divinity of Christ, original sin, heaven and hell—I thought for the first time that it was OK to admit that they might not be true. I hit upon the old argument that if God exists, and he (or she) is just, then he wouldn't send me to burn for all eternity for using my mind to decide for myself what's true. I still believe this. When I realized there might not be a heaven, it hit me—hard--that this might be all we get. This was another big, big, idea that's been with me ever since.

I had great friends in New Orleans, but I hated it there, because UNO was a commuter school, and very little was happening on campus. I hated New Orleans itself at the time for its flatness and squalor (I've learned to appreciate it since then, because I've actually taken the time to learn about it). I vowed to leave Louisiana and never come back. Never say never.

So, I transferred to Hendrix College, a little, private, liberal school back in Arkansas with the reputation around Arkansas for having a lot of gays, punks, and hippies (the last two are accurate, but I think I met as many gay people at the other schools as at Hendrix. But I tend to make friends with gay people—gay guys, for example, don't bore me to death talking about sports 75% of the time). Most of the kids there were upper-middle class, and pretty smart and literate. But a lot of them seemed spoiled and sheltered compared to the state schools I had attended, which were both full of first-generation college students, many of whom grew up poor. I was trying to transfer into a small school as a third-year student and break into already tight social groups. I got depressed. I started watching a lot of dark movies, and reading all the standard authors most liberal, bookish college kids read—Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac. Most of the philosophy professors at Hendrix were stern and boring, nothing like the characters in New Orleans.  I realized that introductory philosophy classes give you the most exciting stuff to read, and that a lot of philosophy is either dry or impenetrable. Worse, it rarely comes to conclusions that most of its practitioners agree on. Science, I realized, was more successful at such conclusions, because it actually tested ideas, and threw out the ones that didn't work. Besides, I realized, it's a tough to find a job as a philosopher.

So, I switched my major to psychology, which is slightly more scientific and had somewhat better prospects for a career. In social psychology I first started learned about how prone people are to biases and group-think. I learned that our minds aren't really geared for finding what is true, or for understanding themselves, so much as navigating through a complex world using any trick that works. This includes trying to convince ourselves that we are good, right, smart, and basically one of the good guys, even if we are none of these things. I read about depression, trying to figure out why I was prone to it, and made myself even more depressed.

For some reason, I took a class called China Through the Ming Dynasty. That's when I read the Tao Te Ching, and it blew my mind. I got interested in eastern-style mysticism, especially three ideas: 1. That we should pay attention to how nature can work by simply flowing without thinking, and that we need to learn to be able to do this ourselves, because overthinking can get in our way. 2. Words and images are often simply inadequate for capturing the grandeur of reality, which can be appreciated better by opening our minds and not trying to put things into words. 3. We should simplify our lives and appreciate the wonders that come for free. I kept getting more interested in nature, and started hiking again. I became more of a knee-jerk liberal, but I pushed back on some of its excesses, especially the over-the-top political correctness that was becoming popular around that time.

I figured I would get a Ph.D in psychology and be a college professor, but I wasn't sure what area of psychology I wanted to go into. So, after Hendrix, I enrolled in a master's program in psychology at Hollins College, in Roanoke, Virginia. There I started thinking more about cognitive psychology; about how thinking and perception work. I also expanded from Taoism into Zen Buddhism, and started thinking about how that related to the mind. I got interested in enlightenment. I was captivated by the thought that people could attain a higher, or at least different and informative, state of consciousness by meditating and simplifying their lives. I was smitten by the idea that the concept of the self—the feeling that we are a separate entity that is more or less bounded by our skin—is an illusion. We are bigger than that, though it's hard to and keep that fact in mind for very long. There's no clear line where our self ends and the world begins, and the more you meditate and think about it, the more you feel like the world is part of you, and vice versa. Scientists don't talk about this stuff much, but it's not unscientific. There's nothing supernatural or magical going on; it's just a different way of experiencing existence. Unfortunately (I think), I gradually lost this interest, but I still think it's important, and I think I may someday come back around to it.

That part of Virginia is beautiful, and right on the Appalachian Trail. I started hiking a lot, and became even more nature-oriented. I read Annie Dillard's amazing book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which she wrote while living nearby. The book is a long, semi-mystical meditation on nature, in all its glory and horror. Much of it is pure, heart-stopping genius. I would wonder around Tinker Creek, trying to see things the way she had seen them. At the same time, though I can't blame Annie Dillard for this, I become more of the nature-worshipping, romantic-type of environmentalist. I saw “natural” as good, and “artificial” as bad (I'd always had that tendency). I turned into a bit of a luddite, and I became convinced that the population explosion would bring on an environmental apocalypse in just a few decades (I would modify this thinking later).

After Hollins, I started to rediscover my love of animals. I saw a National Geographic article about play behavior in animals, and thought: that's what I want to study. I wanted to combine insights from cognitive psychology with animal behavior, to figure out why animals play. I found a cognitive psychologist who was interested in animal play behavior, and I applied to be her graduate student: The only catch was, she was in Newfoundland. So I moved to one of the more remote places in (or near, really) North America. You should go there sometime, it's fascinating. I got even more into simple-living and intensely ecologically-conscious lifestyles. I even got interested in communes; into back-to-the-land kind of stuff. I was still a semi-luddite, who believed nature was beautiful and harmonious, and human creations were ugly and artificial. But then one night I was talking to a fellow grad student who had been a philosophy/biology double major. She was explaining to me why she was a vegetarian, and I gave the standard response that “Eating meat is natural. Other animals do it, why shouldn't we?”. She immediately asked me if, since lions and many other mammals kill babies that they didn't father, we should do that to? It is just as natural, after all. I was busted. I later learned that this is called the appeal-to-nature fallacy. Just because something is common in nature, that doesn't necessarily make it right. This is a very big idea, and more people need to hear about it.

Most of my friends in Newfoundland were outdoorsy biologist types, so I kept doing a lot of hiking. In classes, I learned more about evolution and behavior. I realized that a lot of what animals do can be explained by the fact that genes act as though they are trying to get themselves propagated into future generations. Evolution doesn't cause animals to behave “for the good of the species”. Far from it. It causes animals to act as though they are trying to send as many of their genes into the future as they can. Whether it helps the group as a whole is irrelevant, from evolution's “point of view”, which is why a lot of animals are not very nice to members of their own species. The logic is this: genes that cause animals to behave in ways that help them survive long enough to reproduce as effectively as possible—these are the genes that are successful, and grow more common over time. Animals sacrifice themselves for their offspring because their offspring carry their genes. However, animals may also sacrifice themselves for their relatives, roughly to the extent that their relatives are likely to carry the same genes they do. Of course, neither the genes nor the animals know why they do what they do. Genes can't feel or think anything, and animals do things because (because in the immediate sense, not the evolutionary sense) they have a strong urge to. They don't think, “It's time for me to find a mate, so I can reproduce and spread my genes”. They probably think something like, “Want sex! Want to build nest! Look, babies! Want to take care of them!”

It's a subtle, often-misunderstood, and incredibly powerful idea. And it probably explains a lot (not all) of human behavior. Why do we pair up with other people, settle down, and have kids? Because that's what our biology tells us to do; that's the behavior that best propagated our genes in the past. Why do we (usually) devote more or our time to helping family members than unrelated people? Because they share genes with us. This doesn't mean these behaviors are meaningless, or that we should stop. It's human nature to do these things, it makes most people happy to do them, and we would go extinct if we didn't. However, it is good to realize why we do them, and consider whether there are times we should tell our genes they're not the boss of us. We can't ignore them, but we can push back against them. After all, just because something is natural doesn't mean it's right.

Anyway, in Newfoundland I was trying to combine cognitive psychology with evolutionary biology and animal behavior. This turned out to be a problem, because some of my professors could only think within the bounds of their discipline. Put crudely, some of the psychologists thought the biology was bullshit, and some of the biologists thought the psychology was. Going to seminars, I realized that college professors fight like cats in a bag, and often with roughly as much reason. I got disgusted with the intellectual provincialism of my professors, and I got interested in the idea of finding unifying themes in human knowledge. I wandered around the library, looking for books about unifying different branches of knowledge, but I was shocked to find that there were hardly any. I started thinking, “What is universal? What is common to everything?” Well, we are all primates, we all live according to the same laws of nature, we are all made of similar cells, which are made of similar molecules and atoms. I realized, in short, that science and nature were a source of unity. So I started reading a lot about science, not just biology, but chemistry, physics, astronomy, and so on.

I finally realized that a common theme in all the sciences is that everything has evolved over time. The universe began very simply, with a handful of types of particles and forces popping into existence in the Big Bang. Then things got more complex. Particles combined into atoms (just hydrogen and helium at first). Matter fell together into stars and galaxies.  Stars forged hydrogen into all the heavier elements, and then blasted them out in colossal explosions: supernovas (most of the atoms in our bodies were once part of an ancient, exploding star). I started to believe that if you think of things in terms of the history of the universe, then that provides a universal narrative for explaining the fundamentals of nature that are explained by the various sciences. It ties all the sciences together in one big, grand story.

Nature has branched out over time, from an initial, single trunk to more and more luxuriant, diverse branches. It's a big family tree, and everything in it is related. The farther back you go, the wider the circle of relation gets. I look a little like my cousins because we share ancestors, and recent ones. I look less like a chimpanzee, because the chimp and I share ancestors that lived several million years ago. But the chimp is a close relative compared to a tree--my common ancestor with trees lived thousands of millions of years ago. However, the tree and I have a distinct family resemblance. We both have cells, mitochondria, DNA, many of the same metabolic processes, and we are both made of similar organic molecules and atoms. I'm even related to rocks, stars, and galaxies, because I'm made of the same fundamental particles that they are; born in the same cosmic genesis.

The further you look back, the more common ground you find. If the history of the universe can be seen as a big, branching family tree; then much of human knowledge can be seen as a tree as well. Physics is at the trunk, chemistry is a little higher and more branched, and biology more branched and complex still. Even history can be seen as a branching tree of cultures, languages, and ideas, although those branches merge as well as split. By the time you get to the arts and humanities, the tree metaphor breaks down, at least to the extent that they are more about experiencing and interpreting the world than explaining it. Facts and histories may not be the point, and even if things like artistic trends branch and diversify like species (and they do) the branches in the humanities are so complex that diversity is much more apparent than unity.

Anyway, this story is getting way too long. I got obsessed with the idea of writing a book, conceptually unifying big chunks of science, history, and other branches of factual knowledge, by telling the story of how the universe has evolved--branching and building over time, combining an initial unity with increasing diversity. Tall order, right? Well, I was 24, I thought it would just take a year or so. Besides, by that time I had realized I wasn't single-minded enough to be a professor. Many profs are focused almost to the point of obsessiveness on one highly-specialized topic. I would always be interested in a wide range of things. I left school to write the book.

I worked on that book for the next ten years. I lived many places, and worked various crappy jobs. I did it because I had told people I was going to write this book, so damnit, I was going to write it. Also, I really believed in it. I thought it was really important for people understand how different branches of knowledge fit together, how we and all other things have a common heritage, and how short our lives are compared to the abysses of time the book covered. I still believe all these things. I also thought that people have to find common ground, or we would go extinct and take a bunch of other species with us. I believed the next century would be the crucial one in human history, because it is the inflection point in a massive explosion of human population and impact, unprecedented in history. I was trying to show in the book how shockingly small a century is, and how human populations growth is like an explosion. I believed that if it the book influenced just a few dozen people to work toward avoiding the catastrophes of the next hundred years, then it would be worth sacrificing things like marriage and children (especially since I had never been all that drawn to those things). I believed more and more that, if I had just one life, I had to figure out what was going on as much as I could, while I could. I wanted to understand this crazy, beautiful, often horrible world while I had the time, and the book was my way of doing it. I got more solitary. I avoided getting involved with women, because I couldn't devote a fair amount of time to a relationship and still finish the book. I got very jealous of my time, always looking for time to read and write. I eventually lost my fascination with the mysticism of Taoism and Zen, and became more enamored with knowledge, with finding facts and connecting them into a meaningful whole.

As I wrote the book, though, I became less convinced of the absolute dichotomy between nature and society. When I started it, I believed that a lot things about human society—as opposed to the natural world—were unstable, out of balance, and arbitrary. And many of them are. However, slowly, I started realizing that nature and society weren't always that different. Lots of traditions in society do make some degree of sense, even if they are “made up”. Laws, for example, are an evolving system, like many evolving systems in nature, and they represent an accumulated set of (mostly) reasonable solutions to human problems. I started taking the idea more seriously that nature wasn't always better. Nature is blind and amoral, but people don't have to be. I began to understand how complicated environmental problems were, and how simple-minded ideas like “all growth and technology are bad!” are silly. Growth and technology can cause environmental havoc, but they can also solve it. If you're skeptical (and you should be) here's an example. In the seventies, many environmental scientists thought the human population would explode exponentially, bringing on Mad Max world. Populations certainly can explode exponentially, and it really is scary. However, as economies develop in less-developed countries, people lose their incentives to have a bunch of children, and population growth rates go down. This is called the demographic transition. So the explosion is not totally uncontrolled, and economic growth can actually prevent population-related damage to the environment. “Sustainable growth” is not necessarily an oxymoron. Of course, as people get richer, they may have fewer babies, but they consume more per person, and then you have another issue. I don't mean to say I stopped worrying about the environment. We've got problems, and big ones. I just realized that nature isn't always good, the things we create aren't always bad, that environmental issues are enormously, mind-bogglingly complex. Not only that they seem even more complex because of all the interest groups trying to spin things one way or another. Anyway, I realized I wasn't going to be able to offer the kind of simple, straightforward view of current trends that I hoped to end my book with.

I also started realizing the book was too big to finish. Scientists were discovering things faster than I could read about them. I also began to see that science and factual knowledge wasn't going to cut it for most people. They were never going to find these things totally satisfying. The spectacle of a grand, evolving universe that ties things together into a great story may be deeply appealing to me, but it doesn't have the human interest most people want. Besides, I started to see that you can only get so far with bare facts. You also have to start thinking about meaning and morality, and science doesn't really tell us much about that. It gives us the facts we need to know, and tells us about the consequences of our decisions, but it can't tell us which decisions are the morally right ones. It can't tell us, at least not entirely, how to lead a meaningful life.

 In short, I stopped believing in my project as fervently as I had, and I realized the book was far too big to be publishable. When I turned 35, I decided to stop and get on with my life.  I put the book online, at I took some of the illustrations from the book and made an educational poster, and sold over a thousand copies of it. When I ran out, converted the poster into a website, at

However, I had learned an enormous amount of stuff. I figured that I should find a way to put that, and my rambling, scatterbrained intellectual curiosity, to use. So, I went back to library school, to be a reference librarian. In library school, I got more social again, and re-learned how much fun it is to hang out with other people. I also confirmed my suspicion that most people don't give a damn about any of the things I had spent the last ten years thinking about. The story of the universe was never going to strike a deep chord with most people. Most people need to think about how they relate to other people. I started thinking maybe the material universe doesn't matter as much as I thought it did (I mean, it's pretty important), and wondering what really did matter. I'm still wondering, and I probably always will.

After library school, I moved to a small city in south Louisiana to work as a reference librarian. There aren't as many social opportunities here. So I started reading more. I started writing again, but on a small scale, with this blog. I started reading about ethics, wondering about the foundations of ethics. Here was a new puzzle for me. Why be ethical? I mean, I think it's important, but what are the foundations it rests upon? It's a fascinating question with no easy answers, even for religious people. Of course, now my rambling brain has rambled a little further. As I've seen people online start to bicker more and more, I gotten more interested in civility, and its relationship with critical thinking and logic. A lot of the blustering online isn't just rude, insulting, and counter-productive—it's also illogical. If you avoid logical fallacies, like attacking a person instead of their argument, it's a lot harder to be nasty. Rude and illogical go hand in hand, at least in comment threads. Anyway, that's where I am now. Who knows what I'll be reading and writing about in 5 years?

If all that doesn't justify why I've lived the way I have, I hope it at least explains what I was thinking as I was doing it. Of course, way back at the beginning of the massive post, I was setting out not only to explain how I've lived in the past, but to think about whether I should continue living that way in the future; whittling down life's complications so I have time to read and think. But to be honest, it's almost stopped raining, and I'm tired of writing. If I'm going to think hard about that, I'm going to have to do it another day. Now my brain is mushy. The big question, of course, is whether it's nothing but self-indulgence to spend so much time reading, thinking, and writing (I'm assuming a little self-indulgence for the sake of pleasure is justified). And the answer to that lies in what I do with my conclusions. I tend to think that if a few dozen people read the stuff I write, and are influenced in positive ways, then I'm justified in spending some time doing it.

Of course, the other question is, how important is it for me to spend my time doing other things? If I were married and had children, it would be totally inappropriate to spend so much time reading and writing, and so little being a husband and father. But I've already indicated that I don't think everyone should feel obligated to get married and have kids, much less to get on the whole treadmill of keeping up with the Jones's in an escalating cycle of consumption. I know for sure that my time reading and writing is better spent than if I were working extra hours to make payments on a Lincoln Navigator or McMansion. Perhaps it would be better spent doing volunteer work, or adopting children. But those things aren't what my basic nature makes me want to do, and when you reach forty, you start to have a good idea of what's constant about yourself. What I want to do, again, is figure out and appreciate this world as much as I can, in the short time I'm here, and try to help other people do the same. I'm not trying to write a massively over-ambitious book any more, so I don't need to be so jealous of my time any more. No one's going to die if I never get around to reading some book. But I don't ever want to lose all my time for learning and pondering. If we can't stop to think and get our bearings, then life passes as a big, confusing mystery; a frantic dash for money and prestige. Socrates famously said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I wouldn't go that far, but I know the examined life is the more satisfying one, at least for me.


  1. Thanks for writing this, Ross. It's a nice way to catch up with you after all these years.

    1. Thanks for reading it, Rob. We need to catch up in person one of these days. It's been too long. Congratulations on the new book!

  2. I know this post has been out there for a while, but I am glad to have read it. For me, the need for solitude is also difficult to defend, but impossible to deprive my self the joy of it!
    Truly enjoy the blog.