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Monday, June 6, 2011

Gardening and Philosophy: My Monday World

Bruce works in the bookstore on Monday, which means I don’t have to wait until evening to get out in the garden. Can’t say I got outdoors before sunrise today but early enough. Lots of work to do, and I got everything done that I'd planned. After hours of gardening, when I was hot, sweaty, stinky, dirty, achy and tired but very satisfied with all of my accomplishments--oh, also hungry, I should mention--I came indoors for a lunch break (leftover spaghetti) and a little more reading of Robert Pirsig. Will you believe that so soon after re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’ve gotten into Lila: An inquiry into Morals, the author’s second book? For some reason when I tried this book once, it seemed trivial and superficial and a waste of time. I must not have gone far enough into it. Like his first book, the author weaves his philosophy into a travel story and tests his ideas against his encounters with other people, and maybe it’s because I just came from such a close reading of the first book, but this time I’m finding Lila gripping, and now in Part III, by a strange coincidence, I find myself reading exactly what a friend wrote to me about this morning in an e-mail. How coincidental that my friend should send me a link to an article about facts not changing minds on the very morning I'm reading about the same phenomenon in Pirsig's book.
The anthropologists established a second point: not only does insanity vary from culture to culture, but sanity itself also varies from culture to culture. . . . Each culture presumes its beliefs correspond to some sort of external reality,but a geography of religious beliefs shows that this external reality can be just about any damn thing. Even the facts that people observe to confirm the "truth" are dependent on the culture they live in.

. . .

A child in a money-society will draw pictures of coins that are larger than a child in a primitive culture [will draw]. Moreover, the money-society children overestimate the size of a coin in proportion to the value of the coin. Poor children [in the money society] will overestimate more than rich ones.

A couple of pages later the first-person narrator, presumably Pirsig, recalls taking his boat toward Cleveland and stopping along, thinking he was in a harbor 20 miles down the coast. He asked how far it was to Cleveland and was told he was there. He couldn't believe it, as he'd been following his chart.
Then he remembered the little "discrepancies" he had seen on the chart when he came in. When a buoy had a "wrong" number on it he presumed it had been changed since the chart was made. When a wall appeared that was not shown, he assumed it had been built recently or maybe he hadn't come to it yet and he wasn't quite where he thought he was. It never occurred to him to think he was in a whole different harbor!

It was a parable for students of scientific objectivity. Wherever the chart disagreed with his observations, he rejected the observation and followed the chart. Because of what his mind thought it knew, it had built up a static filter, an immune system, that was shutting out all information that did not fit. Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.

You know how old woods hands say that when you're lost in the woods you should always believe your compass, especially when you're tempted to think it's wrong? This is why.
If this were just an individual phenomenon it would not be so serious. But it is a huge cultural phenomenon too and it is very serious. We built up whole cultural intellectual patterns based on past "facts" which are extremely selective. When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern we don't throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact. A contradictory fact has to keep hammering and hammering and hammering, sometimes for centuries, before maybe one or two people will see it. And then these one or two have to start hammering on others for a long time before they see it too.

Just as the biological immune system will destroy a life-saving skin graft with the same vigor with which it fights pneumonia, so will a cultural immune system fight off a beneficial new kind of understanding. . . with the same kind of vigor it uses to destroy crime. It can't distinguish between them.

None of us is immune to having an immune system. It’s easy to laugh at the people who spent all their savings a couple weeks back, convinced that the world was going to end, but each and every one of us has blind spots (smaller ones, we hope) that evidence doesn’t penetrate. Moreover, between the "intellectual immune system" of one individual and the "cultural immune system" of an entire society, of course there will be subcultures with belief systems that have the same kind of immunity, rejecting what doesn't fit their cherished patterns. When you realize this, you have to be amazed that anyone ever changes his or her mind about anything or lets in new, challenging information at all.

What new challenge to a strongly held belief can I entertain today? How seriously can I take the arguments and evidence that oppose my view? I have too much on my plate to go hunting for an argument, but if one comes my way I’ll try to listen with an open mind.

Gardening is good for so many reasons, but I particularly love being outdoors and working physically and mentally at the same time. Then, look at this beautiful compost! It’s full of big, healthy, wriggling worms, too, worms that are all ready to go to work for me for free, while I'm indoors reading or up in Northport selling books.

The bales are all planted, bean seeds are in the ground, lettuce in boxes where it will be decorative until we harvest it—either that or the rabbits will think we’ve spread a special buffet table just for them, but I’ll worry about that when the evidence presents itself.


Ruth Overdier said...

Agree, agree, agree!!
Agree with Pirsig, agree with you, writer and gardener :)
Thanks for this blog

P. J. Grath said...

You're very welcome, Ruth, and I'm happy you visited.

Mr G said...

Very interesting Pamela. Pirsig loved to think about challenging topics. A kindred spirit I suspect.

P. J. Grath said...

His Dynamic Quality is very close to Bergson's Creative Evolution. Have you read THE SOCIAL ANIMAL, by David Brooks? Does not contradict DQ or CE so far.

Gerry said...

This was very good to read just now. I've had my head deep in historical research, and have been using the tools of genealogy for the first time. It is extraordinarily easy to say "That can't be my John Henry McPherson. My John Henry McPherson couldn't have been way out there in 1864." Ha. Honest research is humbling.

P. J. Grath said...

Is there the literary equivalent of a compass for historical research, Gerry?