We are a strange kind of creature: a skinny rope ladder of a spine leading up to a thatched loft balanced precariously on top, that serves as a kind of monkey lookout, from which we practice our various savageries against other members of our species, and the rest of nature.
The demise of naïve realism hasn’t been heralded with a fanfare. In all probability you aren’t even aware of it as much of an issue (it is, though). It’s as if the patient died in a remote and obscure hospital far out of town and we only received the news of his passing in some dog-eared and rain-spattered communiqué left at the side of the road.
These two thoughts are related by a stronger binding than initial inspection may suggest, because it was the original division into “world stuff” and “mind stuff” that sponsored the idea of nature being something alien and unruly that had to be tamed by man’s superior intellect and civilizing, progressive tendencies. Nature was a weed-throttled wilderness, and it was the business of man to convert it to a split-level garden for his own pleasure. More than anything, nature was something other than us, something that had to be taken in hand and subjected to a damn good thrashing, like Basil Fawlty’s car.
The products of this way of thinking are all around us. But our animal tendencies are not entirely to blame. Each world view it is possible to hold has its knock-on consequences for behavior, branching from its originating ideas. When nature became an alien other, something we imagined ourselves to have grown out of and left behind, something that encroaches upon us and cramps our style…in short, when it became an object imagined to occupy a domain fundamentally different from what we declared ourselves to be (mind, spirit, whatever) then the stage was set for more or less everything that has followed. You can’t have a healthy relationship with that which you seek to dominate and control.
Science is a human invention that was largely a product of this ontology. No such thing as science exists “at large” without our rhetorical interpretation of what it is and what we are doing. Now I am not hating on science. I think it has done many wonderful things for us, and I am using its fruits even now to communicate my thoughts to you. It is (or at least has been, up until this point) extremely successful at what it does. Whether it can continue this success is another matter altogether, but I will defer that point for now. What I wish to draw attention to is this: the triumphant success we have known with this tool, wonderful though it may be, hypnotizes our gaze away from a serious problem that has been growing all the while in parallel. It is as if this figure of bright raiment has a shadow twin or dark-body double concealed back of the luminous twin’s circle of light, and whose presence we are predisposed to ignore because we are entranced by the radiance of the figure in the foreground.
The world is something we can’t emulate. Please take a moment to consider the gravity of that. When we refer to such things as “life,” “nature,” or “the world” we convince ourselves that we somehow know what we’re talking about, when in fact we do not. Pull on any of those home-knit terms just a little and the entire sweater unravels to a bundle of the sketchiest definitions. And if that were not bad enough, the problem is many times more serious when it comes to such things as feelings, will, sensation, perception, love and awareness. When Descartes bisected the shimmering body of being into those two strange moieties, spirit and stuff, he set a snowball rolling down a hill that has yet to come to rest. One full half of what he carved off with his doubting knife became dead, alien and other, became the “matter” that we talk about, and believe for all the world that we really see, when we gaze down microscopes and peer into the frozen prairies of outer space. Meanwhile, everything that was vital to existence as living experience and mystery shrank away behind the shores of that rainbow-lintelled island, the pineal gland.
The impact of this can hardly be overestimated. It has burrowed deep into our habitual unconscious and into every imaginable recess of language. When we speak of “mind” and “brain” we are discussing categories resulting from the thinking of Descartes; when we talk of a “thing” as distinct from an “idea”, of “body” versus “spirit”, of “animate” versus “inanimate”, when we say that something is “purely subjective” or that we are “not being objective”, then we are implicitly referencing Descartes. Even in science the division into “matter” and “fields” is like a secular version of “body and soul” and owes its construction to Descartes. It has also deeply influenced religious thinking. Concepts of an afterlife certainly existed before Descartes, but Descartean dualism has abstracted the afterlife to an entirely spirituous ‘otherworld’ that has no practical relation with this one, in direct contrast to the shamanic spiritualities of the Amazon Basin, for instance.
Very importantly, our modern view that consciousness is “located” in the brain is a descendant of this belief system. It may no longer be strapped into the hot seat of the pineal gland, and is imagined to be diffuse over the entire cerebral cortex, but aside from this the underlying assumption remains essentially unchanged.
What took place in this imaginary process was basically the radical abstraction of consciousness away from bodily form into its own independent realm. Thinking, feeling, believing, imagining, all emanated from this ontological lighthouse beacon in the pineal gland. The opposite consequence is that form, the body, Descartes’ world of “res extensa,” contracted to inanimate mechanism. The physical organism became akin to a clockwork device, and if you boggled closely enough at the mechanism, so the belief went, you could figure out how it “worked.”
Notwithstanding later attempts to re-ignite a kind of vitalism (which failed), it was this move that killed off any idea of a “life force” in the living organism, at least as far as the scientific process was concerned. A human being became akin to a kind of monstrous crane driver, with the tiny operator slung in a little control cabin inside the brain. Even animals no longer possessed mental reality in this scheme. Only humans had a mind, and so the entire zoosphere, with the exception of Man, became a gigantic, lumbering mechanism.
But if we can put the gears of the mechanistic paradigm into neutral for a minute and step back from the picture, it becomes apparent almost right away that the physical organism is rife with “intelligence.” Just look at the body’s ability to heal itself, even something as supposedly simple as closing off and healing a small cut on the finger. This is alleged to be a mechanism, but in fact no mechanism anywhere that for certain is a mechanism (such as a watch or a radio) can do this. If such a mechanism breaks, it stays broken until it is attended to by external repair. Neither do mechanisms grow and develop, or regenerate parts of themselves, or reproduce themselves. Mechanism is a human abstraction. Whatever the forms of nature might be, they are not mechanisms. Our emulations of them are mechanisms, and this is a crucial fact to discover.
We can see the advantage of forcing this division, of casting things this way. Descartes was very interested in mathematics and geometry, leaving substantial contributions to the development of both these fields. By concentrating all simple, mechanical, repeatable and measurable elements of the world into one domain, and abstracting out all that messy mental stuff (volition, emotion, belief, etc.) to an inexplicable “somewhere else,” he made certain that he didn’t have to consider any of that when examining the outside world or formulating theorems of geometry, and he created a scenario where the external world could be “operated on” as if it were a sacrifice victim awaiting a bevy of Aztec priests.
It is unlikely that Descartes anticipated the full scale of our ecocidal tendencies, as illustrated most graphically in the heading picture that goes along with this post, or our rampaging abuses of the animal kingdom, the other sensitive beings we share existence with, as so many abstract objects just to experiment upon or eat. But he may have overestimated our inhering wisdom. Soon enough. we scrabbled up that rope ladder into the monkey tree, and began to hurl our coconuts at nature.
Significant strides have been made in science by treating the world as if it is a mechanism with predictable, volitionless, repeatable patterns. Nevertheless, the fact that these strides have been made does not necessarily infer that the metaphysical assumptions underlying those inquiries are correct. Rather, it infers that there are practical advantages of particular kinds to be had by treating aspects of the world as if they are synonymous with this human abstraction of a mechanism, and especially where the patterns under investigation at least approximate to such behavior, as they tend to do in the movements of bodies and in chemical reactions (if we don’t press too deeply).
But: the structures of knowledge we receive back from the world are correlated to the type of questions that we ask, and the fact that particular advantages can be had by asking certain types of question does not preclude the possibility that other realms of knowledge and advantage are yet to be discovered by asking very different types of questions. It is often said that almost everything we know of the material world has been won as a result of the scientific method. This is true up to a point, and I am not one who would seek to diminish what science has achieved, but as a claim it fails to be entirely convincing, because science has been a process of asking very similar kinds of questions for several hundred years. Not similar in terms of the contextual detail, but similar in terms of the sponsoring metaphysics that informs the very way it asks its questions and which has barely changed since Descartes.
Last day, I noted that the world seems to eschew observation when pressed beyond a given point, but I left hanging the possible implications of this. In my opinion the implication is that the Descartean split is wrong, and in particular that awareness is somehow far more incestuously involved in the productions of reality than we have given it credit for. While this does not necessarily infer that reality is a “great consciousness” or a “great mind,” it at least opens the possibility that some kind of ground or soil of what it is to be conscious beings is a much stronger actor in the theater of existence than we have supposed, and not just a mute spectator. If creaturely existence grows up from some queer, dampy soil that is somehow associated with–or even simply is–an underlying potential for awareness, if living forms are a kind of mushroomic growth stretching up from this soil, then this raises the suspicion that consciousness of a world of “objects” is somehow a sleight of hand that requires a partial occlusion of penetrative seeing in order to be sustained in existence, without collapsing like a house of cards.
My hunch is the hidden existence of a paradox, whereby awareness would disappear again into unconsciousness if it were ever really to “complete” itself, having no longer a figure-ground division on which to discern itself, and that this is the concealment dynamic we previously glimpsed operating in nature generally. Were it to reach that point, and lapse back to “unconsciousness” (that is, potential, pre-awareness) this might create the very kind of existential vacuum from which outrushes nascent forms again in order to realize the actuality that the potential is only ever a potential of. If this is true, then animal consciousness, a category that includes our own, becomes like an array of peculiar antennae sent up out of this ground, probing the unexplored space of possibility like so many remote sensors quivering in the wind.