Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Travels, II

I flew back to Boston today. A few thoughts:

1. Some time, about five years in fact, I destroyed my 1990 Toyota Camry on the Interstate in West Omaha. The truck in front of me braked hard, I was checking my mirrors and failed to notice quickly enough to avoid him. After a bunch of stitches I was repaired. The car, not so much.

It doesn't freak me out to revisit the site; I drove to Omaha on three separate occasions while I was back for the holidays with only minor butterflies in the stomach. Instead, I'm given to morbid yet serene thoughts when I drive through urban expressways, shoulder-to-shoulder with other cars as we dive-bomb around the turns. "If I jerked the wheel hard to one side," I think, "I could do a hell of a lot of damage. Maybe even kill someone."

It's a passing thing. I used to have the same feelings on planes, always contemplating mortality at takeoff. That's worn off now. Perhaps it's because science and I are in a better place than we used to be, or because I take to air more often, or because I spend less time around people who are scared of flying.

I wonder about pilots. The final descent into Boston Logan Airport occurs over water, as the runways stretch right to the end of the harbor. Peering out over the ocean as they slow the plane down at just the right moment, I wonder if they ever look out and think, "If I let of the throttle a bit too son, or descend a little too fast, I could wreck this plane and kill everyone right now." Flight trainers probably drill that out of you. Still.

2. Speaking of awe, it's an odd feeling to look at the Atlantic Ocean because it gives you a great deal of respect for its importance. The European and especially Americans cities that abut it preserve what they can of their historical legacy. Beacon Hill in Boston saves the brick streets and facades; tourists take the Freedom Trail around the North End. But Boston and New York and Baltimore are all thoroughly modern metropolises, with spicks of historical marker here and there.

The Ocean has changed structurally, what with a few centuries of humans pumping it and traversing it and dumping things into it. For pure aesthetics, however, it mostly looks the same. Sure, you could estimate the geographic coordinates of the Titanic sinking or whatever else tickled your historical fancy. But in a huge mass of liquid, who cares about a tiny portion. It's the whole that counts, and the whole, unlike the land or the cities or the people, looks about the same as it did 400 years ago.

3. On my planes, when I wasn't nodding off from getting up at 5:30, which I am no longer accustomed to, I was reading E.O. Wilson's Consilience. When he was writing about the birth of consciousness and the beginnings of scientific theory, I made this connection: certain non-Calvinist Christian theologians love to make a big deal out of the concept of "free will," that a person has the choice to accept God/Jesus/divine phantasm -- nobody's going to make you, so it's all the more special when you do. But consciousness was an accident of natural selection, one that succeeded because it helped humans survive and reproduce more successfully. And therefore its byproduct, free will, is just an accident as well.

Wilson seethes wonderfully against metaphysics and postmodernism, romantics and relativists. But in pushing aside those who don't devote their lives to rational inquiry, or at least appreciating rational inquiry, I feel like he's leaving a lot out. If free will is an accident, then life has no meaning outside of what we subjectively place upon it. Science might be the best way to spend your time because it is uniquely grounded in positive reality. But you have the free will to turn to something else, or nothing at all -- "I never asked to be conscious anyway!"

Oh freedom. It only costs $1.05. And who wants to live in a world with no dumb romantics and all button-down physicists? Not me.

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