Today my American ecology blog hangs its head in shame.
We should never lose an abiding respect for our own awareness, it is equal to any there has ever been. From a recognition of this equality a wholly natural ethic arises. Awareness in the universe is like the contained in a container. This contained and its container consists of an infinity of interdependent interactions, an infinity ceaselessly emerging from emptiness, an infinity like nested dolls. This is not like the fake infinity of mirrors reflecting one another, or words that mean nothing endlessly bouncing off the walls of our media echo chamber. This is an infinity of emergence in an open universe, meaningful emergence – we walk in a sacred world. The world we touch, see, taste, hear, smell and feel includes real boundaries around the right of we who exist, to exist as we exist. Self defensive aggression is the appropriate response to anything that would violate these boundaries. It is, quite simply, an evolutionary imperative to protect these life boundaries from the death dealing that threatens it.
One of the ways these boundaries are being protected are in the expose’s of the techniques of mind exploitation coming to light in our day. The neuroscience research into the role of trauma is another reflection of a new appreciation of the importance of these boundaries. I like to believe history’s bully, the enslaving pyramid builders, just might have finally made the mistake all bullies make eventually. They messed with someone who was stronger than they were. In this case it is the children who are proving to be stronger than the traumatic events of their upbringing.
Derek Jensen’s work is a good example of a bully taking on a child that proved to be much stronger than he. So are examples of those who have survived cult attacks and lived to tell the tale. In children such as Luna Lindsey, author of Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control, we see the same dynamic at play, the same awakening. The old enchantments are not working as well as they once were. Exposes like this would have not have been possible a decade or so ago. Not only is our understanding growing, but the appeal of the BS seems to be declining. It could well be that the very real threat to the real, molecular world which ecology reveals is taking the shine off many of the sadist’s convoluted justifications. The idols of our twilight, as Nietzsche warned us, are deafening in their clanging hollowness.
The poison of fundamentalism itself is coming to light. We have learned about the cycle by which abused kids become abusing parents creating abusing kids, how the panic instilled in the nervous system by trauma leads to the flashbacks and nightmares of PTSD, we have captured the neuroplasticity of emotional circuits becoming fixed when subject to imprinting and understand how such fixities are dissolved, we understand the mechanics of re-enactment of trauma (including war) and the projections and transferences involved, and the list could go on. We know what we do to one another when we allow violence and fear to dominate our lives.
And now we are learning what we do to the earth when we allow this domination by violence and fear to rule our societies. Allowing the alpha males to seek giantism has brought us to the brink of nuclear war and ecological overshoot and collapse. The age of war bands would normally follow where we are today in the cycles of history. I have to wonder about this new thing though, this shadow of our abuse staining our headlines yet also understood more clearly than ever. Our species has understood itself with a transparency that was not here before. The children are arriving crowned, conquering our hearts. Because their eyes see and respect the eyes of the woman and the child, the spider and the crow, they cannot respect what they see in the eyes of the alpha male that would violate the inviolate boundary. They see in those eyes that demonic hunger that seeks only the rape of the body or the mind of the innocent. A hunger that needs to take life after extended moments of suffering in excruciating tortures. An insatiable hunger.
The bully knows this. He knows that once the victimized women and children lose respect for him, there is nothing he can do to force it back into them. They can be made to fear him and pretend to respect his dictates but this is not the same. Once, as David Bowie sang, one knows one knows one knows, there is no turning back. Trauma shatters things that cannot be repaired. This is its tragedy. This, I suggest, is what more and more the children are coming to see in our eyes. They are waking to the subservience we have been willing to pay the pyramid makers. Now that the voices of the unborn have become a howl bearing down on us all, it is hard to not feel haunted and condemned in that glance. There is no helping it. There is a real choice to be made about how you are going to live your life and to what you are going to give your allegiance. Depending on how you choose to make that choice the reflection of yourself you see in another’s eyes will be one of beauty, a gift of the sacred world, or one of rage.
Shattered respect – once gone, its gone. The abusive father, mother or leader, once clearly seen as such, never again get the love and respect they were once offered when naivety and innocence ruled the victim’s mind. Once this disillusionment happens, an escalation of violence on the part of the abuser is never able to get that love and respect back, though that seems to be the way people react when they see the shattering has happened. A person can, perhaps, re-earn love and respect over time but that would require personal transformation on their part. It happens, but not often. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.
Knowing what is honorable among us, and what is dishonorable, it is not hard to live a noble life. The difficulty is that the honorable cannot be seen as long as our eyes are glued to the shiny things narcissistically seducing us. Consumerism tries to stamp us into being something we are not; ruthless competitors after status and power, red in tooth and claw, only kept from tearing one another to bits by strong law and order. We have learned to see in the human being what the economic and production systems of hyper-capitalism see when they look in the mirror. They have usurped their limited liability role to become the template by which we are supposed to view all of existence. Some marketing scheme.
The justifications for authority are crumbling. With the psychological insights such as those just mentioned dawning world wide, the alpha male’s appeal to the divine right of kings, the mystical mumbo jumbo supposedly making right of their might, is losing its ability to fool as many people as it once did. Instead of the dictator looking archetypally luminous, the hero of the people and savior of order from the teeth of chaos, these mass murders begin to look simply and honestly pathetic. And once you know you know you know… It has become evident that psychologically twisted individuals are driven to enslave others and hurt them cruelly anyway they can in order to try and satisfy some inner insatiable hunger for recognition and control over their world. It is up to us as a society to decide what role we will allow these individuals to play in shaping our ideas, institutions and customs.
We know where the great evil lies. After the death camps, after Eichman, there can be no doubt. It is that which allows an individual to shirk their moral duty under the banner of “just following orders.” That is what the banality of evil taught us. So we should do everything we can to encourage those traits that intelligently question orders. We need to support those things that encourages an individual to stand up for common human decency when all around them mobs are marching to a different tune. The greatest danger in massively industrialized societies is how quickly they can be turned into death dealing machines. They do this when war material becomes the be all and end all of a country’s reason for producing anything at all. Coal and pork, steel and children, potatoes and iron are all fed into the war making processes when, when what happens? When a monster takes the reigns and everyone else just follows orders, sir.
Today if a leader is not talking about adjusting the human footprint into a smaller size by using less of the earth’s resources, that leader is simply not leading. That leader is a spokesman for the giant Homo Colossus. There is no rational argument that stands up to critical examination that can justify any other conclusion, given the existing state of ecological knowledge and crisis.
The question of humankind’s ability to adjust to the constraints of the future with any kind of dignity intact is intimately related to what does or does not happen on the war front in this coming century. This, in turn, is related to questions of authority, specifically an individual’s relations to those claiming authority over them. Today our children are indentured servants, if not slaves, to the needs of Homo Colossus. Those currently doubling down on increased economic growth and its concomitant carbon fuel use are quite actively and consciously attacking our children, perhaps torturing them. They tell us it is sad and they are sorry but the earth just does not provide enough for everyone and this is how it has to be. This, too, is another lie the children are waking up to.
“A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?” he asked.
Pope Francis angered by America’s ‘mother of all bombs’ name, BBC News
“What is the basis for intolerance? This book addresses that question by developing a universal theory about what causes intolerance of difference in general, which includes racism, political intolerance (e.g. restriction of free speech), moral intolerance (e.g. homophobia, supporting censorship, opposing abortion) and punitiveness. It demonstrates that all these seemingly disparate attitudes are principally caused by just two factors: individuals’ innate psychological predispositions to intolerance (‘authoritarianism’) interacting with changing conditions of societal threat. The threatening conditions, resonant particularly in the present political climate, that exacerbate authoritarian attitudes include national economic downturn, rapidly rising crime rates, civil dissent and unrest, loss of confidence in social institutions, presidential unpopularity, divisive presidential campaigns, and internal or external crises that undermine national pride or confidence.”
The Authoritarian Dynamic, Cambridge Studies in Public Opinion and Political Psychology
I believe that if we learn to use our words, we can avoid using our fists. Is ecology the problem or is it the ecologists? That pretty much sums up what is lurking in the background of most public conversation and policy making in America these days.
Shred the EPA, bully on through protests around pipelines, discard rules around dealing with corruption in dictatorships to allow the last big oil deals, and seal it all with a Judas kiss to the people who worked and protested for decades to bring ecology to the attention of policy makers. Give corporations a huge tax break, strengthen prisons and arrest protestors; it is rather clear which side of the authoritarian divide is calling the shots these days. It will be interesting to see how the seeds sown over the last few months look come harvest time.
I, personally, am wondering how long it will be before we start seeing the roll out of the new patriotism propaganda. That is the worst. I love my country enough to want to see it deal realistically with its actual problems. The propaganda version of patriotism though, well that is little more than using the flag the way a magician uses a handkerchief to misdirect where you are watching, so they can pick your pockets dry and spill the blood of your loved ones on their fields of profits..
Pretending there is a future for our hyper-consumerism is becoming more difficult of late. The justifications are wearing thin and the blowback is becoming embarrassingly difficult to hide. Though the misdirection of the mass spectacle has been perfected, here and there some folks still look away from the screen and out the window. Those folks see a world very much unlike the one being peddled in the public square.
The petroleum industry assures us we can power past impossible. Their latest marketing campaign, unveiled during the 2017 superbowl, gives away the whole show. The engineers working for the oil companies know more than anyone how the investments in new discovery have not kept up with the needs of projected demand. They know more than anyone that the reserves remaining are not large enough to keep international trade and industrial infrastructure powered as we are accustomed to for much longer. They also know better than anyone that the carbon that remains in those oil reserves should not be burned anyway, if there is going to be a crying chance for our children to have a climate conductive to regular crop harvests. I think it was the engineering side of the house that told the marketing side of the house, “impossible.” It is impossible, from an engineering point to view, to continue powering Homo Colossus with oil. Marketing, as marketing will do, called the engineers sad sacks and immediately came up with their own solutions. The guys over on the sales side of the house knew they could sell the last drops to fools if they could only get enough momentum to jump over the facts, and viola, the new marketing phrase for the petroleum industry was born: Power Past Impossible (.org).
Would you like some twinkle dust with that?
We are doubling down on religious wars and faith in the magic of capitalism. That magic, borrowing money from tomorrow to fund productivity today, has long ago lost its luster. Financial shenanigans are more common than production for bringing investors their required returns, and when production is occurring it is likely to be of poorly made yet overpriced gizmos that serve no human need, but do supply their owner with some token status they are denied in every other aspect of their lives under the big dogs of petro-dollar capitalism.
It turns out big oil and big capitalism were not the kind social guides their spokesmen had made them out to be. It is hard to imagine any course of events that could have shown the world their true colors more clearly than those of the last few years. The ecological evidence in that time has become solid enough to be damning to the faux innocence and naivety by which our overdeveloped countries are conducting their business – the business of big oil and big capitalism.
While we warm up the nukes and double count the ammo, this might be a good time to take a moment or two to reflect on just what it is that is happening to us. We have lost the ability to see a bright future at the end of the consumer rainbow. Those of us who have studied ecology seriously have also lost any easy transitions to an alternative tech future, it is far too late. So we keep smiling and faking it, as if we did not know our way of life has become a disaster for the planet. Meanwhile the anger grows day by day. It is being driven by our survival imperative: you cannot take the species’ future away from it.
Who is in charge here? Certainly not the puppets of history, they are just dangling on the ends of strings more powerful then they could begin to comprehend. Certainly not the ideologues and demagogues who claim to know what these nightmare-level social breakdowns are really about but prove themselves time and again to be clueless. Certainly not some invisible supernatural fallen angels, demons, ghosts or ghouls. No, what ails us is all too visible since oil is in, or involved in, just about every object we touch. The only invisible factors are those of our human psychology.
This is not about preaching to the choir, this is about sketching a picture accurate enough to be of some use. Courage uncovers phobias and airs out the claustrophobic fears by daring to talk about them. Traumatization makes absolutes out of relative facts, so talk is able to puncture their false infinities. Besides, knowing where our temptations are, perhaps we can steel ourselves against their seductions. One of our greatest temptations just now seems to be a willingness to entertain ourselves to death, literally. We want our world leaders and world events to be big and flashy, we want our world to be as exciting as a summer blockbuster.
Goodness lacks the flash of evil. It’s appeal is closer to intimate sex than to violent rape. The quite of contentment and contemplation may seem to lack the drama we have become addicted to. There are no sub-machine guns to mow down a classroom full of children with kindness. There are no love knives we can use to slit the throats of pregnant woman. There are no electrodes to hook up to vulnerable body parts to shock people into caring about what happens to their fellow man. There is just the power of kindness in the honest love between people. Is it going to be enough?
That is for you to decide. Today. While we warm up the war machine.
You should know that there are some who have decided, evidently, that it is not going to be enough. Love is not as sweet as power for these folks. They are itching for a fight, itching to take back what they feel they are entitled to but have lost. Learning to get by with less holds no appeal for them, at all.
Welcome to the war between two world views. Times are getting hard and people are looking for the cause. One world view recognizes the role ecology plays. This view understands that the expansion of giant industrialization is running into the limits of what is possible. Ecological limits to growth is what is ultimately behind the hard times and what we should be adapting to. The other world view denies that and finds the cause of the hard times to be the ecologists – it is an over regulation of business that has driven manufacturing offshore and placed unfair burdens on corporations competing in a global market.
Times are hard and getting harder. Loss is in the air. How will you react? That too is for you to decide. Today. While we warm up the war machine.
I would like to suggest that as you decide between these conflicting world views, that you make your decision using the most careful reasoning and critical thinking you are capable of. Then you will understand why you take the position you do. You will be able to articulate it when necessary, and not be easily persuaded this way or that as the crowd sways first one direction and then the other. That transparency of reason, built carefully using both logic and values, will serve you well – whatever the fates may have in store.
To be mindful is to be aware of what is happening right here and right now.
Right here and right now human activity is threatening the future of our species.
To be aware, right here and right now, of this ecological truth.
Did you know that in deep time when the rise of mammals all over the earth began it was accompanied by the spread of the earth’s first flowers? Mammals, those animals that show such dedication to their young, were encouraged along their difficult way by an explosion of color and shape unlike anything the world had seen before. The flowers continue to witness to an essential characteristic of evolutionary adaptations as they occur in the real world by showing an overabundance of shapes and forms that far exceed the minimum needed to satisfy their reproductive needs. They satisfy the criteria around survival of the fittest, as do all things that persist on this planet, yet this hardly begins to address the role flowering plants have played in earth’s long evolution. The fecundity displayed among such overwhelming variety has been accompanied, always and everywhere, by the additional features of “secondary qualia” which so enriches the sensory experience of sentient beings (at least those with nervous systems) with pleasing forms, enticing scents and vibrant colors.
0 = 2. There is always the container and the contained, the observer and the observed, the inside and outside to all that nature has brought forth as actually existing from the great emptiness of all that might potentially exist. It sustains that bringing forth in every moment. It is of one piece, this unfolding of the present moment at this place, on this earth, with all that has gone before and all that will come to pass. Seamless cause and effect is the sea on which we sail our ships of will.
Have you ever read a book or seen a film about the ecological crisis and felt overwhelmed by what you had been exposed to? The extent and speed with which we are remaking the earth is unprecedented. If even a tenth of the forecasts from ecology’s models come to pass, the day after tomorrow is almost too terrifying to think about.
Mindful Ecology is a way to think about these things.
Most of us are never taught how to go about thinking slowly and carefully about things, nor are we taught to include an awareness of how our bodies are reacting to what we are thinking about. The result is that most of our cognitions remains little more than factoids, toys of the intellect, instead of becoming truths about our world we deeply and immediately understand. Around such truths we can form meaningful lives.
Mindful ecology asks if you are ready to take a radical step, one proportionate to the crisis of un-sustainability we find ourselves in. We are in need of courageous people who can take the fight to the monster in our midst; the collapse of fossil fueled industrial civilization. We are in need of people trained to perform open soul surgery under triage conditions to aid those traumatized by the monster.
More and more people are waking up to the horror of the ecological crisis unfolding at a rapid pace throughout the earth. When the horror penetrates the heart – the mind is left numb. What, we wonder, are we to do?
Mindful ecology is one way of responding. It involves developing a direct relationship with the deepest issues. It seeks a profound understanding of the planetary sciences through contemplating them, thinking deeply about them, allowing them to make an impact on one’s emotions and values.
Speaking of understanding, I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank the authors who were most influential in educating me, and provoking me to respond. Mindful Ecology is my heart felt thank-you for the courage, integrity and honesty I found in their work. I am not sure it can be rightly understood apart from it.
The best minds share seemingly simple models with us and speak only that which is most obvious, once it has been said. It is when we realize they stand alone in their trail-blazing that we recognize the true extent of the genius involved. William Catton’s Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change introduces the key ecological findings pertinent to our actual circumstances in ideas and terms that allow us to think more clearly. Such service is invaluable. Here, in summary, is the story of the ecological message of our time according to Dr. Catton. The oil fueled industrial economy is a detrius feeder, subject to overshoot. The state of overshoot is sustained as long as the phantom acreage on which it relies remains available. In the Age of Oil the detrius feeder found just the food it needed to grow enormous, even giant, life-threateningly giant. Homo Colossus was born, the prosthetic extensions of our human reach through the power of the technology we strapped on our backs. It’s giantism does not respect the limits which must be inherent to all things on our finite earth, its need to grow endlessly is destroying the biosphere. The death of Homo Colossus will likely be accompanied by a population die-off, as is the way with detrius feeders. For those with ears to hear…
The basic statement on peak oil presented in Richard Hienberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies remains a solid accounting of an ecologist persuaded by the Hubbert Curve. There remains no rebuttal to the basic argument it presents, which is a nail in the coffin of Homo Colossus.
John Michael Greer corrects the pervasive dismissal of the real future we are making for ourselves. The Long Descent, a Users Guide to the End of Industrialization and The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post Peak World, together provide a point of view carefully leavened by historical precedent. It is a corrective to so much that is blindly taken for granted by a society equally smitten by visions of endless technological progress and cosmic sized apocalyptic fears. These books remind us the future we are going to get is the one we are making, which is by the way, much more frightening.
Finally, saving what was most important for me for last, Derek Jensen’s work has a very powerful effect on me. In A language Older than Words and A Culture of Make-Believe I heard a full throated voice, powerful with an honest integrity determined to have their say. To say the way it was for him to be alive in a time of such horrors as those which accompany us along our way today challenged me to do the same. The scream, the revulsion, the human refusal to take the bully lying down or cover up their crimes; all these things speak in his work. They are dark works, flint for the soul in a dark night. For those to whom they resonate they bring the full bodied human being onto the front lines to confront some hard truths. Homo Colossus abuses the earth. In the final analysis it’s toxicity was born from us, from our abuses of one another.
This shows us a way forward.
To be mindful is to be aware of what is happening right here and right now.
Right here and right now human activity is threatening the future of our species.
To be aware, right here and right now, of this ecological truth.
“To account for the orderly behavior of living beings Descartes introduced the concept of the machine which, more than an conceivable organism, is the product of design from start to finish. Even more than Newton’s divine organizer, the machine model introduced teleology or finalism in its classic form: a purposeful organization for a strictly pre-determined end. This corresponds to nothing whatever in organic evolution.
The transposition of the specific characteristics of organisms and machines actually elevated the mechanical creature above his creator. That error has brought catastrophic potentialities in our day, in the willingness, on the part of military and political strategists, to give to agents of extermination they have created – nuclear weapons, rockets, lethal poisons and bacteria – the authority to exterminate the human race.”
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power
Something precious about Western civilization was lost last week. We pulled up anchor on scientific fact and are now adrift on a sea of myth and fantasy, rudderless. To see those protesting in the streets, insisting that facts matter, was to have a front row seat as science, the cultural current of Western civilization for the last five centuries, became just one more special interest. Facts, evidence, reasoned argument, objective measurement, honest use of probability mathematics – all this is now on equal footing with every other minority view trying to get a just hearing in the halls of power.
Caesar will decide if those representing these things deserve any air time with the rich and powerful guiding our military, economic, ecological and cultural future.
It was not a good thing that scientists and their supporters had to take to the streets to ask people to listen to facts. Sure, the courage the protesters displayed showed everything we are rightly proud of about our commitment to truth. Those marching and protesting had all the right intentions, and as we have discussed intention is very important in determining the ethical value of actions. Still it is astonishing, really, that citizens of our oil driven, nuclear weapon threatened, ecologically omnicidal modernity needed to take to the streets to insist that facts matter. Somewhere along the road between the engineers in the factory, who are constrained on every side by the limitations of matter and energy, and the image makers packaging their products for mass consumption, who paint freely with the brush of unconstrained imagination, our culture seems to have been persuaded that reality is optional.
Our astonishing lack of historical knowledge is not serving us well here. The rise of the scientific method was greeted across Europe as a way forward. Religious wars had ravished the continent for decades. Catholics fought Protestants, Protestants fought each other, and no one could agree on what the “real god” wanted of people, so the people spilt blood right and left to show the sincerity of their devotion. It was a time of true believers. Ransacked villages, burnt Cathedrals, buried loved ones – the river of bloody destruction seemed to erupt anytime educated people tried to have a conversation with one another. One party would site this scripture, chapter and verse, and provide lengthy detailed arguments for why what they insisted on being true was the only true that could be true. In response the listener would site a different scripture, a different chapter and verse, and soon the ire between them overcame them and the final missionary tool, the sword, was brought to bear.
Those centuries of religious and political arguments weighed heavily on those who first turned their hope towards the scientific method. That method seemed to provide a real possibility of extending the area of mutual agreement among people, which in fact it has. Reasoned argument based on evidence was seen as a means of rationally guiding the beliefs of human beings towards something more solid than individual opinion. It was the so-called objectivity of the method that provided the hope. Demonstrable facts became the currency of educated thought. We do well to remember that though there were always a few philosophers here and there, for the most part before physical facts took center stage it was the power of the speaker’s wealth or inherited family name or the size of the institution they represented that determined, in practice, what was to be considered real and true.
The people eventually grew tired of sacrificing their sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and lovers, for ideas that no one could provide the slightest bit of solid evidence for. When the first inklings of science started making their way through the educated circles it was seen as a breath of fresh air. A type of humility turned away from the unanswerable why questions of religious philosophy for the limited, but reliable, answers about how things worked right here on earth. This has proven to be an outstandingly fruitful pursuit of knowledge. Open an upper graduate textbook for any of the hard sciences and you will immediately confront the density of our modern comprehension. This detailed knowledge is available for the student and scholar regardless of which part of existence they choose to focus on; from geology to astronomy, biology to quantum mechanics, from neuroscience to atmospheric studies, the list goes on and on.
It is sad that we have turned our back on what our ancestors worked so hard to provide for us through this pursuit of scientific knowledge. It revealed the full extent of deep time and deep space, showed forth the mysterious molecular means of evolutionary life’s long trail, and opened the heavens to a vision unimaginably vast. Reality trumped the theological and mystical imagination of our ancestors at every turn. If religion is actually coming to know the reality of that-which-is, these secular centuries have been quite courageous in their faith.
It takes a courageous, adult faith to face the reality of our situation. Childhood faith is able to exist as a pure comfort: god is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Adult faith has confronted the cold, godless universe revealed by the heart broken in suffering, typically suffering for another. It is an interesting psychological fact that it is the door of compassion that causes one to question the childish image of a good god always watching over us. It is when we need to confront the reality of evil killing and damaging innocent lives that the too easy childish faith is shattered. The problem of evil: how could a good god allow this to happen? It is Dracula’s taunt, ‘I am about to drink the blood of the living, good god if you exist strike me down and save the innocent from the loss of their souls.’ As we have learned, painfully, from Dachau, Dresden, and Nagasaki, the stars remain silent. The atheist’s honesty about these matters cannot be dismissed.
It is wrong to think this step in intellectual integrity destroys. It uncovers delusion, reveals a truth that can be revealed no other way. The dark night of the soul is orthodoxy; it was not play acting when the Christ of our myth cried out from the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Only by being willing to pass through this threshold might a person come to find a more adult faith, the resurrection of hope on the other side of immaturity.
As a culture we are going through the same process. In the secular space we have been learning to stand strong with the honesty of our intellectual integrity. It is as if we said, ‘Ok, maybe the universe was made by monsters and cares not a whit for us, we are going to be brave enough to discover the truth regardless.’ I applaud our courage. We admitted to ourselves that whatever power humanity’s long cultural evolution might achieve in our efforts to protect and nurture that which we love, it will of necessity be based upon that which is real. The first image to guide science towards just what that real might actually consist of was the machine. And in this, there is a tale.
Science, of course, deserves part of the blame for its having become just one more special interest in our day. Its fascination with the machine and easy subservience to the needs of empire are well known. This and so much more can be laid at the foot of science. It does not change the tragedy of what has happened.
As Lewis Mumford taught us in The Myth of the Machine, mathematics and machines were thought to uncover a realm more real and fundamental than the messy organic complexity of subjective experience. That celestial and terrestrial mechanics were wholly tractable through gravitation’s terms of mass and momentum captured our imagination. Physics became the standard bearer for what a mature science should look like. Though we set out with an image of the machine as the scientific model of the really real, it was too removed from the organic substrate from which it came. The machine inhabits a dead universe, one in which life is a secondary, chance, ultimately meaningless occurrence. Galileo banished the qualia as secondary qualities, silencing subjectivity. This is our dark night.
The myth of the machine’s dead universe is a delusional one.
It is the result of banishing subjectivity from considerations of reality. This is what allowed scientific thinking to avoid the religious and political fights all around it. The non-subjective yet active automaton became the model of life that fascinated the kings and princes seeking to bring their unruly empires under the control of law and order. A mass of people understood to be little more than valves, levers and winds could be played by pharaohs’ fingers, made to sing his song – and build his pyramid.
The problem with the scientific enterprise centered around the view espoused by Descartes that living things were no more than machines (man excepted in his opinion due to we alone having rational souls). This is to put the matter backwards. Organisms are not made of collections of simple machines, our simple machines are made from abstracting a single functional aspect of an organism into a simple form. The machine, unlike the organism, is no longer able to adapt to changes but requires a very exact input if it is to produce its output. Machines only function within a small range of tolerance; change the fuel, the chemical makeup of the input materials, or any number of other details and nothing works. The organisms from which we draw our inspirations do not share these limitations and are characterized first and foremost by subjectivity. Still, in retrospect this fascination with the machine, which lead us to build and serve Homo Colossus, also looks to have been an effective vehicle for the intellectual and cultural development of our scientific knowledge. It was this art of seeing the essential through simplification that made it possible for our brains to get purchase on the complexity of our molecular environment.
Reductionism gives us models we can work with. It’s effectiveness should not be confused with an ontological objectivity it cannot justifiably claim given the epistemology of scientific inference. Creating maps and menus are necessary but no substitutes for the land and the meal to which they refer. Our species relationship with our planetary home is the referent for all the equations, all the scriptures, all the models of our minds and hearts. Science was mistaken when it dismissed subjectivity as unreal, instead of real but too complex to be captured in our models. Culture, however, was mistaken when it dismissed the factual basis of science’s molecular world in favor of fights over maps and menus.