“But epistemology is always and inevitably personal. The point of the probe is always in the heart of the explorer: What is my answer to the question of the nature of knowing? I surrender to the belief that my knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits the entire biosphere or creation.”
Mind and Nature – a Necessary Unity, Gregory Bateson
What is it exactly that forms the river into the specific form it takes as it winds its way down a mountainside? The water interacts with the land it touches and together they work out the path it takes. Riverbanks constrain the water and the water carves the riverbanks. Throughout, conditions form the expression of the river; a boulder in the middle of the river here, a fallen log there, the incline of the ground is steep here and less steep over there. The tides and flows are molded by all these factors. The shape of the river also is influenced by the organic matter it interacts with; algae slowing the flow in the stagnant water of a cul-de-sac or a trout vigorously kicking splashes of water and pebbles to and fro.
Not one element of the river is expressing itself just-because. There are causes involved at a multitude of scales all working together to bring forth the exact expression of the pattern of relationships which we call a river. Ever changing yet ever constrained, the river embodies and expresses these patterns of relationships moment by moment.
Ask a physicist what makes the river take the exact form it does and they will be able to explain it in terms of gravity and hydrodynamics. They can provide a detailed description in complex equations. Here is another area in which I think it is extremely helpful for contemplatives to have some grounding in modern science. The equations involved in the description of fluid behavior are difficult. These complex discoveries are among the more impressive achievements of the modern mind, yet without some exposure to the level of detail the sciences speak there is no real way to appreciate that. This blog is not the place to examine such equations and I am certainly not the best guide to such explorations but it is worth a moment to just see one set for a simplified 2D flow:
Still, in spite of our deep understanding of the dynamics of fluids the human mind remains unable to predict the shape of a river in any but the most trivial of environments. This inability to predict is due to more than just the number of variables involved, although those are immense. Imagine a computer able to handle them all and still we would be unable to form accurate predictions due to the chaotic nature of water flows.
Just how the turbulence within the river will develop is highly sensitive to the initial conditions. We call this state of affairs a chaotic system. The force of cause and effect is no less prevalent in such systems; it is simply that the slightest change in the starting values of the parameters leads to very different outcomes. In the real world our instruments are only able to measure to certain degrees of accuracy so those differences in initial conditions act as a barrier to our ability to predict exactly what will happen as the rivers weave their warp and woof on their way to the oceans. (Measurement and its characteristics in the real world were mentioned earlier.) There will be more to say about complex systems that incorporate chaotic dynamics as we proceed along this blog project. For now I think it well illustrates that the type of ‘intelligence’ a river is involved in is not as simple and trivial as we might think it is before we analyze it.
The river itself of course has no trouble navigating all these factors. Embodying this ‘intelligence’ is what it does moment by moment. It reminds of a quip by Buckminster Fuller, “I wonder”, to paraphrase what he said, “how many decimal places of Pi nature carries out her calculations before deciding it is good enough to make a water bubble?”
We have grown so used to thinking of mind as something only human beings have. A more narrow definition of mind would be hard to imagine. Such a narrow definition is useful in some contexts but as a general world-view it may not serve us well. Too narrow a view admits only a mysterious ghost in the machine in the human brain finding itself in a dead universe of automatons and carnival masks, or to use the classical terms – atoms and void. Ok, let us say for the sake of argument that view is true on the atomic level. Does that necessarily entail that there is nothing real at any other level? To insist it does would be a logical error.
This might seem pedantic but there are enormous debates in our history trying to decide if the consciousness animals have might have any characteristics we could rightly call mind and if so to what degree. The way we treat and eat animals might need to change if we were to change our view on this matter. Still, most people are willing to assign some degree of mind to their pets and extend it as a logical implication to other animals of the wild. The Elk and Wolf both display behaviors that we recognize as purposeful and intuitively we assign such functionality to mind. It gets a bit harder to say the same about a worm or a gnat perhaps.
Here is where a mindful ecology lets its love for the earth whisper wisdoms from indigenous peoples. As astonishing as it might be, and as I have mentioned before, even a single celled amoeba can be said to have beliefs of sorts since it too displays purposeful behavior. Daringly, might we suggest that those flowing rivers we just looked at are best understood as also being expressions of mind? Or to be a bit more careful, mindful ecology is suggesting that there are definitions of mind that are coherent while being able to incorporate not only the biological but also the whole container in which the biosphere is found. To be clear: this is the heresy some proponents of the Gaia hypothesis are at pains to disown. They are comfortable admitting life might form non-life towards serving its needs but cannot see how the obverse relationship could have an equally valid standing. We are so conditioned to see the non-life as dumb and dead and nothing more it is difficult to imagine any other view could even be coherent unless there was theism behind it.
Why might it matter how narrow or wide we define the nature of mind? I asked a few posts ago to take some time with a flower or a candle and really ask yourself; just what is it you think is really going on here? Here is one way to view such things. This view I am proposing is firmly rooted in an ecological understanding of how critical to the well-being of living things is the interactions they have, always and everywhere, with the non-organic. There is a whole here that cannot be separated. Even a cell in a laboratory’s sterilized Petri dish remains dependent on its environmental container.
That there is design in nature is the puzzle of puzzles. Theists claim it proves their view, Darwin is said to have explained it without recourse to a mind-of-god hypothesis and the artists, poets and lovers never fail to be inspired by it. The contemplatives suggest it is actually very difficult, perhaps impossible, to draw a distinct boundary between the expression of mind seemingly inside and the expression of mind seemingly outside. They seem to have intuitively grasped a definition of mind surprisingly modern in its ramifications.
Describing the shape and dynamics of a river as a manifestation of intelligence comes from an appreciation of a few fundamentals normally attributed to consciousness. There is information. Information requires a physical representation; it needs a material base as we have learned from cybernetics and computer science. In our computers the information is in the form of electrical voltages high and low, in the formation of a river it is in the form of the riverbanks and other elements. There is communication. Communication establishes relationships which are required to express any pattern whatsoever. In our computers the relationships are between logic gates, particular patterns of electrical circuits. In the shaping of the river the relationships are between hydraulic flow characteristics, gravity, organic material and a whole host of other features.
Recognizing the primacy of relationships is another way of saying reality is interdependent, or dependently arising. Recognizing the primacy of relationships is also why when Gregory Bateson tried to teach about an ecology of mind that would include the mind of the Redwood forest and the sea amoebas. He wrote: “The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.” (Mind and Nature, italics in original). Patterns are relationships in which meaning is found, intelligence.
When you can sense the trees you see shimmering their leaves in the wind are joining the shrubs and lawn under the cloud bedecked blue sky in expressing a mind that is not fundamentally different than your own – then a peace can blossom in your mind-stream that embraces you thoroughly, warmly, like a mother. Look straight up into the deep blue sky. Without over-romanticizing it sense the ancient jellyfish who were perhaps the first to seek light, and the vines crawling upward reaching for the sun, then add the countless flowers spread over the whole of the earth and over eons, shifting to get just a few more of those precious rays. Sense your ancestors, many of whom were not at all polite or quiet or even human. The treasure house of awareness in its container is precious, priceless, the jewel worth more than any possible purchase.
Everything that would make you into a stranger on this earth, resist it. Others are all too willing to deny your reality to sell you something, force you to do their bidding, enlist you in their cause, trap you in their own nightmares… gently set aside the peer pressures. Remove the hands of fear from your throat. Fight off the constrictions on your chest and breathe freely. Recognize that with the jewel of awareness you have everything of ultimate worth. Just perhaps, that insight will cut the power behind our clinging to lesser things. Try it. As my teacher says, give it a shot.