I never have a bad day hiking

Or, in this case, I never have a bad weekend hiking.





Alone on the Appalachian Trail

PZ has his Sunday Sacrilege post up today. It’s all about this idea of God as a father figure that brings us closer to the Universe, that makes us feel important.

Beyond just the family and tribe, though, this vision has been extended to the entire universe. There is a great Patriarch in the Sky, who is our leader and guide, responsible for making the grand strategic decisions about where our tribe will go, and is also watchfully making sure the unity of the tribe is not disrupted by wayward ideas from nonconformists. He has a central concern that we all share, that our people should thrive, and even if he is stern at times, it is because he cares so much that we succeed. And of course, he knows each one of us personally, just as the leader of tribe or clan in our pastoral days would have, and he can give us an approving stroke or a damning angry smiting, depending on whether we help or hinder the work of getting the flocks to the summer pasturage.

But scientists and atheists (I would be more specific and say anti-theists) shatter that faux relationship.

It (said shattering) makes that whole business of breaking the news about Santa Claus look like small potatoes. Reality is harsh, man.

But it is reality. We’ve done the paternity tests, we’ve traced back the genealogy, we’re doing all kinds of in-depth testing of the human species. We are apes and the descendants of apes, who were the descendants of rat-like primates, who were children of reptiles, who were the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-celled microorganisms, who were the products of chemistry. Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, and he didn’t care about you — he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.

This is true and only certain stances will deny it: the anti-science stance, the ignorance stance, the religion stance. And those often all go come as a single package deal.

But there’s good news – and it’s from someone that actually exists.

But here’s the wonderful revelation. If you’re a well-adjusted person, once you’ve discarded the unhealthy fictitious relationship with a phantasm, you can look around and notice all those other people who are likewise alone, and you’ll realize that we’re all alone together. And that means you aren’t alone at all — you’re among friends. That’s the next step in human progress, is getting away from the notion of minions living under a trail boss, and onwards to working as a cooperative community, with no gods and no masters, only autonomous agents free to think and act.

PZ wasn’t making any reference to hiking trails, much less the Appalachian Trail (AT), but just the word “trail” in the context of being alone triggered a whole slew of thoughts for me.

I was fortunate enough to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness last summer and I quickly came to discover an entirely new culture out on the trail. My poor knees only suffered for 8-9 days (while being partially supported by an infected ankle wound), but it was the toughest physical thing I’ve ever done in my life. Let me start with a description of the trail.

The 100 Mile Wilderness is considered the toughest part of the entire 2,174 mile AT. It runs from Abol Bridge just outside Baxter State Park (where the Northern Terminus of the trail is located on Katahdin) to the hiking town of Monson, all within Maine. It’s recommended that hikers bring 10 days worth of food as well as the rest of their supplies. This makes for a pretty heavy load, even for thru-hikers (those doing the whole trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin, or vice versa). My own pack came in around 45lbs.

I started and finished with two friends. I’m not sure if I could have done it alone. We started at Abol (where some kind gentleman smashed my window and stole my CD’s – because CD’s were worth so much in 2009) and ended at Monson. The rationale for going north-to-south was that the northern end is less mountainous than the southern end and it would an easier start since our packs would be heaviest in the beginning. It didn’t really matter. It was still horribly difficult, horribly painful.

While I was with friends, I only recall my own world on a lot the trail. There’s a lot of silent suffering. And that’s part of the pull of the AT, I think, part of its charm. But at the end of the day, no one is really alone. Hikers will gather at campsites, most of them with lean-to’s. And that’s where the culture of the hiker is solidified.

Everyone out on the trail understands through what everyone else is going. Everyone knows that particularly sharp joint pain. Everyone knows how distant a shower feels, how far away the idea of clean clothes really is. It’s its own culture.

I specifically recall one arduous, torturous day. It was already raining before we even woke up. We had forded rivers with our regular hiking boots on because it would be too painful to try and take them off to put on sandals. And really, we didn’t think we could get any more wet. We were wrong, but it was too late when we found that out. But we trudged on, probably near 15 miles. There was a lot of yelling and screaming, too. It wasn’t ever directed at each other – you need each other – but it was there. It was boiled pain and frustration come to the surface. But it had to end. We saw the sign – “150 feet to lean-to”. Such relief. Until, after spending all my time since walking in that river trying to keep my feet dry, I managed to slip into the swampy, flooded waters at the bottom of a hill. It just sort of just right, though. Now I was angry, frustrated, and in a way, alone.

My world was one of huge discomfort at that moment and it wasn’t anyone else’s. That is, until we climbed that final 150 feet. The lean-to was nearly filled. Five hikers had seemingly used every hanging nail available (so mice don’t get into everything). All their gear was spread out, just as they were, already in bed long before the sun had set. They didn’t look like they wanted to move. Sure, we had our tents, but no one wants to set those up at the end of a day like this, and in the rain. And then that one special thought, maybe the most important one on the trail, crossed all of their minds: There’s always room for one more.

It was only a six person lean-to, but we managed to squeeze in six men. And that’s the culture of the AT in a nutshell. Those 5 hikers saw the look on our faces when we came upon a filled lean-to at the end of the day. They knew our pain. They weren’t about to cast us aside. We weren’t alone.

I think a good life experience for everyone capable is to hike either the AT or some other significant trail system. It’s entirely different from the coldness one might find in Time’s Square, or even Portland, Maine. Of course, it isn’t free from that coldness – families will do simple overnight hikes, taking entire lean-to’s from the thru-hikers, offering them no relief in their 5-7 month journey. (I don’t know how the thru-hikers do it.) But for among those who are on the trail for any length of time, there’s a joining warmth.

The Appalachian Trail is an isolating beast, but those who discover it are ever alone.

I declare I am right!

There are a lot of bad arguments that come from Suzanne Franks and friends. These are caricature feminists who seem to almost revel in the notion of ignoring every philosophy that isn’t feminism. They see to despise the notion that intention matters (a la Kant et al). One user even said this.

Before you bring up Kant on a feminist blog, you need to read and contemplate Jane Flax’s chapter on Kant and Enlightenment thinking in “Disputed Subjects.”

The point I was raising with Kant (and others, but Kant is the most influential) is that intention matters. Feminism is largely a philosophy of consequence, but unlike, say, utilitarianism or humanism, it does not deal well with philosophies which place an emphasis on will (or, specific to Kant, Good Will).

I am unable to locate the article cited by that user, Comrade Svilova, but this piece by Ruth Dawson summarizes Flax by saying,

Jane Flax…argues that Enlightenment depends on the unspoken occlusion of women…

Again, we see an argument premised in consequence. The issues raised by Flax have little to do with the value of intention; she cares about the context of the writings and what they meant for women at that time. This line of argument is irrelevant because no one today is arguing from an 18th century perspective. The invocation of Kant (and more specifically, will/intention) has nothing to do with how past philosophers and others may have implemented particular ideas. Instead, the focus is on how we can and ought to apply these ideas in the cultural context of today. Take this article on the founding fathers and rights. While same-sex marriage was not directly discussed, I specifically had it in mind while writing the piece. The ideas of those men resonate today because they espouse a strive towards equality that many people want. That doesn’t mean any of those men would have favored same-sex marriage. The point is the ideas, not the people who wrote them.

And there are more times where some of the more prolific feminist sites will ignore intention, going so far as to set up blatant and offensive strawmen.

FAQ: What’s wrong with suggesting that women take precautions to prevent being raped?

Short answer: Because it puts the onus on women not to get themselves raped, rather than on men not to do the raping; in short, it blames the victim.

What I think this is trying to articulate is that it is wrong for people to say “She had it coming”. The article does not actually address prevention, as seen here.

Left to my own devices, I never would have been raped. The rapist was really the key component to the whole thing. I was sober; hardly scantily clad (another phrase appearing once in the article), I was wearing sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt; I was at home; my sexual history was, literally, nonexistent—I was a virgin; I struggled; I said no. There have been times since when I have been walking home, alone, after a few drinks, wearing something that might have shown a bit of leg or cleavage, and I wasn’t raped. The difference was not in what I was doing. The difference was the presence of a rapist.

This points out that the author did not have it coming and that rape is not dependent upon how a woman dresses. (While rape is generally about power, it shouldn’t be ignored that many rapists do not arbitrarily choose their victims, often instead opting for particular characteristics or traits – and that is still the fault of the rapist.) This point is not about prevention.

What is being implied here is that there are actually a significant number of people who really do think it is a woman’s fault for getting raped. Instead, the only close argument that actually gets made is that it is a good idea for women to not walk alone at night in dangerous places or that women should carry rape whistles and/or cell phones. This is not a philosophical claim that has implications of blaming anyone for anything. It’s practical advice that acknowledges there is danger out there. This would be like someone saying, “Hey, you should do X, Y, and Z if you come across a bear while hiking”, only to get the response, “What, are you saying it’s my fault if I don’t do those things?”. No, the bear is still the root of the problem and we ought to do what we can to control the population, but you shouldn’t start trekking the Appalachian Trail without knowing the dangers.

The warnings women get are misleading. They leave out the acts of the rapist himself. They focus on the situation. They also may focus on the “kind of man” the potential rapist is. If he’s a friend of a friend, or your uncle, he’s “safe.” It’s the stranger who’s the threat.

Who is disagreeing with this conclusion? Yes, non-strangers are threats, but so are strangers. Control the bear population. That doesn’t mean you should walk into a dark alley because you aren’t the one to blame.

On another FAQ, the question “What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too?” is asked.

Nothing in and of itself. The problem occurs when conversations about women can’t happen on unmoderated blogs without someone showing up and saying, “but [x] happens to men, too!” (also known as a “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too” or PHMT argument, or a “What About The Mens?” or WATM argument). When this happens, it becomes disruptive of the discussion that’s trying to happen, and has the effect (intended or otherwise) of silencing women’s voices on important issues such as rape and reproductive rights.

This undoubtedly happens. In fact, it happens over and over within scientific discussions that get derailed by creationists. The difference, however, is that “derailed” means that the original topic had nothing to do with creationism. On Suzanne Franks’ blog, she specifically ‘addresses’ those who dissent. (Here, here, and here.) Once that happens, the doors are open – especially if she is pointing to specific individuals. It is fundamentally unfair to say, “Here’s why you’re wrong about X…but you can’t respond because I don’t want a discussion. I just want to tell you things.” (It also seems to fit the piss-poor definition of “mansplaining”.)

To what this point really boils is that if someone does not want a particular point of view expressed in a particular place, then that person needs to start banning people. Franks has threatened to do that to me (despite the attention she is giving to specific people on specific topics – it isn’t logically tenable to claim to not want to discuss particular issues in particular ways only to then create posts which specifically do that), and that’s fine. I expect she’ll do it in short enough order and that’s her discretion, as logically inconsistent as it may be. (On the other hand, I consistently edited Comrade Physioprof’s posts because I was attempting to discuss a particular issue whereas he was spamming and trolling. Had my post been a trolling post or spam, then it might make sense for me to allow that guy’s garbage.)

What really bites my goiter about these caricatures and the more well-articulated Fem 101 site is that actual arguments are few and far between. More often there are declarations. Ask why something is so and the result is either a “You don’t get it” sort of response or a referral to a website which is more verbose in how it declares “You don’t get it”. This sort of stuff is okay for high school and lower-level undergrad philosophy courses because it does back up certain claims with further, deeper premises, but that’s where it stops. ‘Arguments’ like these don’t make it into philosophy anthologies, however, because they fail to reach more fundamental issues. How does feminism answer the importance of intention? How does it address the arguments of libertarianism? Utilitarianism? It is not a philosophy of fundamentals but rather one of contextual consequence; it therefore must either rely on or refute the philosophies which penetrate more deeply, more universally (i.e., it could attempt to rely on utilitarianism by arguing that equality maximizes pleasure, or it could refute libertarianism by arguing that too much liberty leads to inequality and inequality undermines liberty).

What I think most reasonable people want is not to be told “You don’t get it, so go to this site”, but rather “These arguments are premised on these more fundamental ideas.” If feminist sites and supporters actually addressed substantial philosophical values (where appropriate, such as in the examples I have given), then progress could be more reasonably and effectively made for all involved.

The mountains of Maine

Being that I’m 1) busy and it’s 2) winter, hiking is hard to come by. As such, I’m getting antsy. So here are a few pictures for your (but really my) viewing pleasure.

This first one is from the Cathedral Trail heading up Mount Katahdin. That’s looking at The Knife Edge, a relatively narrow 1 mile trail going from the peak (out of view on the right) to Pamola Peak (visible toward the left, just before the thicker cloud cover).

The Knife Edge

This one is on Little Spencer. Katahdin is actually easily visible while summiting here, though I do not believe it is the mountain in the distance. That’s me in this picture (taken by friend Matt Doyon). His brother got nervous when I was that close to the edge (which actually had plenty more rock below, just not visible from this angle), so naturally I had to play it up.

Atop Little Spencer

This next one is from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. (I’m on the left.) We started around 2:30am to make it up for the sunrise over Bar Harbor, but alas we were thwarted by cloud cover. Going up, however, was fantastic because Bar Harbor is actually the only nearby town really and it isn’t very big (especially in the off-season). That meant low light pollution, giving us fantastic views of a clear night (but not morning) sky with a new moon. Again, photo by Matt.

Cadillac Mountain

This one is from Mount Blue in Mount Blue State Park. Again, Matt took the photo (my camera is just too bulky sometimes). This was my second winter hike (before Cadillac). We pretty much couldn’t have asked for a better day. Fresh, deep snow to make it a challenge, but not obscenely cold (except in the wind of the summit). And perfect sunshine all day.

Mount Blue

This final one is from the 100 Mile Wilderness, one of the toughest parts of the Appalachian Trail. I have no idea what mountain I was on nor what mountain I photographed. I do know that I at least have the excuse of trying to photograph an eagle here, hence the crooked horizon. This was taken right after the rainiest, wettest, perhaps most miserable day of my life. It was nothing but glory to have this much sunshine.

100 Mile Wilderness

Infuriatingly silly

Jerry Coyne has a post about why Francis Collins pollutes science with religion. It’s a succinct piece that basically nails Collins for all his silly, childish, superstitious, frankly stupid beliefs.

The most inane and disingenuous part of Collins’s argument is his claim that without religion, the concepts of good and evil are meaningless. (Collins’s slide 5 in Harris’s piece: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”) That’s palpable nonsense. Good and evil are defined with respect to their effects and the intents of their perpetrators, not by adherence to some religious code. It is beyond my ken how a smart guy like Collins can make a claim like this, even going so far as to argue that “strong atheists” like Richard Dawkins have to accept and live their lives within a world in which good and evil are meaningless ideas

It’s inconvenient for Collins or any other religiously-driven person to admit that morality is a purely human affair. And really, it’s getting to be a tiresome argument. Explanations abound for how morality could have naturally evolved. That should be good enough to force any reasonable person to admit that, no, morality need not have a god, it need not adhere to the whims of one individual entity, and it definitely is not universal. Our ideas of morality change with the times, with cultures, with known facts, with context. The only real constant is that every human society has developed a moral system. The details within each system may vary wildly – in bin Laden’s, the death of most of America is just – but they are always put within some sort of construct. That does not mean that bin Laden’s version of morality is equal to any other version which may exist. One key component in any moral system is basing premises on facts. That’s the main reason that god-based moral systems tend to fail or be wacky (see inane hatred of homosexuality among, well, almost all the religions). It’s one of the reasons bin Laden’s system doesn’t work and is not equal to mine or yours or most Americans’ or other Westerners’ (or even most Muslims’).

Collins, like most Christians who think they somehow own the moral high horse, despite all the contrary evidence, does not understand that morality is not universal. It is only moral systems. His is broken and can only work because he’s made it malleable to the progression of secular values and understanding. Indeed, if religions weren’t so agreeable to such change, Christianity would be as much a relic as slavery. Of course, that isn’t to suggest that religion so easily moves along with reason. It doesn’t. It usually comes kicking and screaming, forced by the hand of rationality.

There are, of course, also statements made without evidence, including this one: “God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul” And this (slide 4): “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God.” How does he know? What’s the evidence? Isn’t the distinction between the science slides and the faith slides being blurred here?

One thing I’ve been forcing myself to ask myself a lot lately is “Where’s my evidence?” I recently went on a big hike through the 100-Mile Wilderness, the most remote and difficult section of the Appalachian Trail. I recall passing a tree root that had made a sort of rainbow shape. Each end was in the ground, but the middle was up in the air (as opposed to laying against the ground). It was unusual, but I quickly thought “It must have been buried at some point before being exposed, thus causing it to pop up”. I had to stop myself right there. How did I know that? I didn’t. It was a plausible guess, but other explanations were also plausible. It could have grown that way. Another tree could have been there before being removed, long ago, by the Maine Appalachian Trail Committee (MATC). It could just be a brief, weird angle I had making me think it was a root when in reality it was just a fallen branch that appeared buried in the ground. All I had was a hypothesis, and one I wasn’t about to test. I had to settle with “I don’t know” as an answer. Sometimes that isn’t just a temporary answer. Every single claim/question about the after-life that Collins makes deserves a permanent “I don’t know”. He doesn’t have the evidence. As a scientist, he should value that above all else in his work.

But then again, he is a Christian. Religions do not value evidence.

Leave of absence

I will be driving up to Baxter State Park today to hike the 100-Mile Wilderness. This is the most remote section of the Appalachian Trail, so I’m pretty excited.

What this means is that I will be gone for about a week. I’ll return the night of the 25th at the earliest, more like during the 26th, and if it’s slow-going, then on the 27th. Anything beyond that will be unexpected.

In lieu of my ability to post each day, I’ve scheduled a series of posts for each day. Hopefully things will go swimmingly. In fact, to make sure they do, this post is my first test as it is actually Wednesday night right now and I’ve scheduled this for 8:00a.m. Saturday morning. Let’s hope you’re reading this.

In short, I won’t be actively posting or responding to any comments. Instead, I’ll be enjoying the beauty that is the Maine woods, as wrought by the slow processes of a godless Nature.

Hiking the AT

I’ve got a friend hiking the AT right now. He’s posting (well written) updates I will be following, hence this post and the link under my blogroll.