Respecting Facts

We humans have a funny way of dismissing that which we do not like. We decide that it is not real, or does not apply to us, or perhaps, whatever it is that is troubling us is transformed through the magic of language into a battle of wits and words, leaving the real world issue far, far behind. Some facts from the real world, just to remind us:

World population has tripled since 1950
40% depletion in ozone above the Arctic in 2011
Waste is created at the rate of 13.3 million tons a day
1/3 of all land is at risk of turning into desert

These are taken from a colorful DK publication now available in the states, What’s Really Happening to our Planet: The Facts Simply Explained by Tony Juniper. The book hosts page after page of infographic descriptions of the numerous pressures coming to bear on us as we reach the end of the fossil fueled industrialized age. It is a very handy source for those who might be looking for a single book to provide a summary of ecological data and trends. There are a number of criticisms I could make, such as leaving out the concept of tipping points and including a bit too much of the green gee-whiz factor, but they are mostly minor. There is plenty of material here to provide the seed facts for ecological contemplations, particularly if supplemented with additional study.

This book is a good example of the type of information that lead me to think about what a mindful ecology might mean. After reading a book like this – then what? Am I supposed to just go back to business as usual? That was not an option for me, so I asked, what is an individual to do? For people like me, changing a few light bulbs and hoping ‘they’ will think of something, when the last few decades show ‘they’ most certainly will not, is just not enough of a response. Mindful Ecology tries to be proportionate to the crisis. It is a serious and big change to alter one’s life around a contemplative practice. Undertaken with the intention of healing the fractured relationship between our lives and our planet, we learn to embrace the limitations of our own lives – as they really are – and do what we can.

The art of contemplating a fact consists of turning it over and turning it around, giving it a slow and respectful examination in one’s mind. We look at the fact from many points of view, trying to sus out its relationships with other things we already understand in a search for the fact’s implications. This introduces us to the larger interdependent features which are often easily missed unless we are very careful in how we think about things. Facts never exist in isolation, nor do we ever bring an empty mind to our contemplations. System science insists that when we query our facts we ask ‘and then what?’ Have we accounted for all the inputs and outputs? For the side effects? Have we clearly separated the one way path of whatever energy is involved from the recycling of materials? Have we accounted for thermodynamics along the way, what we often encounter as the phenomenon of diminishing returns? These are means by which seemingly isolated ecological factoids, such as one finds scattered throughout works like this one from DK, are knitted into the larger understanding of the real world one’s mind has constructed.

It is important to recognize this model of the real world each of us has constructed within our psyches, it is part of recognizing that the psyche is real. The meaning of the world that we experience is a product of the unique understanding each of us has developed over a lifetime of experience. In the Bayesian model of inference this is captured in the prior. Parts of that understanding will have been constructed with right thinking about real things and other parts will not. We can all be quite sure that much of what we are quite sure about, is not so. There will be cases of right thinking being applied to unreal things or wrong thinking applied to real things, or even wrong thinking applied to unreal things. One role of the ego, among many, is to guide this gathering of information by which our understanding increases. Through an interplay of the gift of curiosity and the curse of needing to find an answer to relieve oneself of confusion and pain, we are each lead to learn more about that which our soul’s need, what our psyche’s need to fully integrate their experiences. Contemplation increases understanding but not if one spends all one’s careful thinking time thinking about BS. The horns of a rabbit visualized in exquisite detail, or documented in libraries full of scholarly volumes, or even delivered by the special effects department to every television in the land, do not gain one whit of real existence thereby.

Shadows remain shadows of that which is casting them, fantasy remains fantasy and confusion sews more confusion unless these things are transmuted in the alchemical vessel of imagination. In our fantasy enthralled culture the role of imagination is very poorly understood. The image making ability of the human mind is in service to the real human life one is able to lead out here in the environment of the earth’s molecular world, out under the blue sky and stars. The imagination concerns the heart’s deepest dreams – and wounds. It takes a strong imagination to perceive the possibility of happiness in the future, not as an abstract goal but as something you can actually strive for in your own life. We prefer fantasies about how our lives might be because our real ones are defined by limitations. Your actual life, the one that is really even now unfolding its precious few moments, is defined by the limitations your character will encounter along its path of fate and fortune. This real life you have can only be seen as valuable when it is clearly understood that you are living the life of a finite mortal who will one day die having had only a very, very small taste of all that human life has to offer. To take our seat as adults and claim our equality with other sentient beings requires seeing this clearly, recognizing it is the same for everyone else, and saying to these very limitations ‘yes’ and ‘thank you.’

Limits chafe the fevered dreams of ego’s ignorant beginnings. When we first set out on the long road of psychological development we are on our hero quest. We learn to build our ego to be strong enough to serve as a vessel for the raging winds of the life force animating our bodies. This is how the mind first grounds consciousness and gives us our sense of being our own point of view, our own self. The heroic ego dreams of becoming a god; it is foolish enough to believe it wants to be a god instead of love a god. This is what the hero learns in the Grail Castle, when the quest is completed and the happily ever after takes over. Not everyone has made it to the castle yet. Many still dream of being god-like instead of human. Many of those who dream of becoming gods cloak their hubris in a type of twisted faith; they claim simply to be serving gods of limitless power. They are but the humble true believers. The give away is in how, inevitably, a human voice somewhere along the line of authority assumes the mantle of that limitless power that rightly only belongs to god alone. Doing so, for a human being, is a suicidal act of self denial.

Limitless righteousness brings nightmares of cleansing fires and sacrificial lambs slaughtered by the hundreds of millions. ‘Great alpha male in the sky, god of thunder and war, have we not become equal? Was there ever a priest more holy than I, more important than I who push the red button?’ Some such bewitchment awaits anyone who ventures so far from home. It is one thing to be on a hero’s quest, quite another to be way-laid by Dracula.

Limitless money, limitless shopping, limitless sex, limitless knowledge, limitless war and conquest, limitless fame, limitless power, limitless holiness, limitless depravity, limitless ecstasy, limitless fresh water, limitless fresh air, limitless crop land, limitless time to address our problems, limitless oil, limitless ego – drinking saltwater, the hungry ghosts trying to slake their insatiable thirsts never find the satisfactions they so desperately seek. Ungrounded, they are torn apart by the star gods, becoming little more than limitlessness twinkling darkly in shells of human beings devoid of compassion, little more than mouths shouting ‘more.’ Why are the hungry ghosts taught to be ghosts? Because they have not become real by recognizing they have been given, in fact, what they need. And that that is enough. Are you breathing? That is the evidence. These false infinites are the dangers that haunt the mind untrained in the disciplines of yes and thank you which arise from the heart. These are what tempt and tease our minds, attempting to strong arm their way into how we perceive the world, draining it of all human sense. Soon the simple pleasures of sex, romance, love and children, shared food and drink, the songs we sing together while dancing in our colorful costumes, somehow all this and more is just not enough. The Buddha’s graveyard vision of the young maidens as disgusting as corpses and the world but one of sorrow, this is what haunts the minds of those traumatized by the modern world. These minds have yet to ride the rafts and visit the isle of non-duality, the nirvana of our nature. They are stuck in the Buddha’s ascetic extreme. They have yet to soften in acceptance of a grain of rice from the hand of a maiden, in acceptance of loving kindness from others.

The husks of understanding these mind parasites leave their victims to feed on make it seem that the best way out of our current ecological predicament is through an all out nuclear holy war. Out in these extremes, where exponential curves never encounter limits, are the howling winds of hell on earth. They can trap us in a prison of madness if we let them.

Your life, what is it in fact? Whatever you are actually able to experience, achieve, accomplish, perceive, absorb, understand, partake of, participate in, share with others, receive from others, and generally the way you carry your body, speech and mind throughout your life span. That is your life. Something larger than our day to day selves makes its appearance across the span of a life considered as a whole. This is what Carl Jung was referring to when he talked about the archetype of the, capital S, Self. The Self is a way of approaching discussion about a psychological fact, namely, that the unconscious mind or larger psyche contains an imago dei, an image of god. This archetype is a psychological feature of the inner world the ego must learn to relate to. As an image of how an individual encounters god, Jung found it played a central role in the healing or disintegration of the psyche which he observed in his patients. He taught that the Self is related to wholeness and integration, individuation and meaning or, when inverted, shows its flip side as dark authoritarianism, a possessing spirit, a numinous complex capable of over powering and bewitching the ego. This inversion is the psychological reality of the demonic as it is projected into totalitarian social movements and the mass sacrifices of life, dignity, and compassion involved in the brutalities of indiscriminant war. But if it was the image of god in man’s psyche that Jung wanted to draw our attention to, why did he name this archetype the Self?

Things that might seem the right things to do or think or feel today, may not seem to have been so wise from the perspective of tomorrow. We learn this as we age. In learning it we are to gain a more critical appreciation of the understanding we have at any given moment. We learn that our conscience, that still small voice, that it too grows wiser. In every moment of our lives we have been operating from the best understanding of ourselves and our world of which we have been capable of. Yet not one of us knows where the inevitable confusions still lurk. If we knew that, we would not still be confused. This teaches us to appreciate the real nature of the prior understanding of the world and our place in it which we bring to any new study we might undertake. Honest humility is the result. Ours is a limited understanding, one shot through with mistakes but not without worth because of that. The mistakes are, more often than not, motivated and not simply random errors. Psychological factors are at play when we deliberately or ignorantly misunderstand that which is real and allow fantasy to usurp imagination. Those threads of confusion lead our understanding further. This is hopeful but errors remain errors none-the-less, sins in western parlance. Knowing even our best understanding is bound to have errors, we would be wise to bring our very best to bear on our problems of critical importance. It does not help matters to deliberately introduce falsehoods, obscurations, distractions and stubborn denial of facts, all backed up by violence, when the real state of our prior understanding of ourselves and the world we live in does not jive with what we want it to be. Isn’t that, more or less, what we are doing today in our public discourse about ecological matters?

This is not academic. This is what is keeping our society from starting a sane discussion about our un-sustainability and what we might choose to do differently. Our understanding has changed, our prior in the Bayesian equation, yet we are not able to bring it to bear when we are called on to interpret the ongoing data stream of evidence from the ecological sciences.

Our understanding of the earth’s climate has evolved over the last century into one of the most impressive scientific studies ever undertaken by mankind. Today we know so much more about its defining characteristics then we did when we first started burning fossil fuels that it is a cognitive lie to pretend our understanding, because it necessarily includes mistakes, is insufficiently developed to support the alarming and terrifying conclusions of the ecologists studying these matters. The same could be said for so many other areas of our crisis from over fishing to drawing down aquifers and all the rest.

I think every important public discussion should start within the full acknowledgement that the facts are facts. That the ecological facts are, at least roughly, as laid out in summary form in works like What’s Really Happening to the Planet? As it states on the back of the book, “Now is the time to understand this heart-stopping subject.” Our way of life needs adjusting, it is un-sustainable and this is what that means. It seems the only question is whether or not the public is going to have any chance to weigh in on this at all, or not. So far the real discussion we need to be having has not even begun. Families throughout the earth’s many nations and our interests, when they conflict with those of corporations about what we should be doing right here and right now, are nowhere to be seen or heard.

We have got to grow the economy. Really? We need to shrink the economy, nothing less will begin to reduce the oversized ecological footprint that is our un-sustainability. We need to drive our cars less, worse, we need fewer cars on the road. The average car is contributing 5 tons to global warming gases annually. 5 Tons! We should start talking about how to pay people to stay home and how to stop making any more of these things. We need to decentralize our power generation, reduce the peak requirements it needs to meet and thoroughly re-create the daily life of those living in the overdeveloped world to use less electricity and transportation fuels in the process of acquiring what they need to sustain their daily life. These are just a few of the obvious conclusions ecological study suggests. That they are impossible to talk about seriously in the public square is a measure of our collective psychopathology.

Drawing logical inferences from limited data sets, reasoning, is not a free for all. To reason is to update what we believe in light of new evidence. The book we have been discussing summarizes, in about 200 pages, a boat load of serious evidence demanding our collective attention. Today we live in denial of the true implications of that evidence. We fear drawing the correct inferences. If we continue to refuse to use our reason in planning for the future, what will we use in its place when the shocks of ecological and societal collapse continue to grow in strength and frequency and things become, shall we say, more desperate? Blood and soil?

Shattered Respect

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.

Over the Edge

“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.

Dead Things?

“My way has been to scour the whole world through.
Where was delight, I seized it by the hair;
If it fell short, I simply left it there,
If it escaped me, I just let it go.
I stormed through life, through joys in endless train,
Desire, fulfillment, then desire again;
Lordly at first I faired, in power and in speed,
But now I walk with wisdom’s deeper heed.
Full well I know the earthly round of men,
And what’s beyond is barred from human ken;
Fool, fool is he who blinks at clouds on high,
Inventing his own image in the sky.
Let him look round, feet planted firm on earth:
This world will not be mute to him of worth.”

Goethe, Faust. Part Two: Midnight

 

What is the role of consciousness in the universe? I think this is a very meaningful question in light of the failed relationship between consciousness and its container which the ecological crisis displays. It is worth spending some time mulling over, contemplating, even, as we will do today, speculating about.

First we should take a moment to appreciate how far our self understanding as a species has come. We understand the role of evolution through deep time so well, that today we read it at the molecular level like a vast clock. How much further might we grow into understanding what we are in another thousand years? Another ten-thousand?

How, we wonder, can the nervous system and hormone systems of the body work with the massive neural networks in the brain (and gut) to produce what we subjectively experience as awareness? As Francis Crick rightly pointed out in a book capturing the essence of our position, to believe mind arises from matter, given the Cartesian split between them modern science assumes, is an Astonishing Hypothesis. For all the world, it does in fact seem to be case that properly structured matter produces mind. But what is the cosmos herself but structured matter through and through? And is it not shot through with information in the patterns it displays? And, finally, is not information the currency of intelligence? Intelligence is the central feature of evolutionary adaptation, the means by which living things participate intimately with their environments. Notice how this requires that we grant awareness of that environment to that which evolves – we are back to the question of subjectivity.

We have become comfortable with the idea that dead things exist. Not the trivial difference we recognize between here is a live cow, there is a dead cow. We have become comfortable with a conception of death that is absolute. This allows us to see things, such as oil and the other minerals used to build Homo Colossus, as mindless items we are free to do with as we please. This attitude towards the geological strata extends then to molecules in general. These too can have no purpose or meaning since they have been placed into this strange category of wholly dead things. Then we learned about molecular pathways in biochemistry. Watching the molecular exchanges within living tissue we gaze at life’s metabolism, the magic by which it’s homeostasis is sustained. Life arising from absolutely dead molecules. The philosophical blowback has been extreme: the logic of the Cartesian premise condemned our own self-consciousness to be classified as evidently dead as well, resulting as it does purely from molecular interactions.

Which leaves us a choice. We can either admit we were in error about this whole ‘we are the only fully aware living being on this dead earth’ thing. We can either admit we were in error, which will entail a new relationship between humanity and the living earth, one characterized by much more concern and care. Or we can carry on the war of all against all. In this view only the small spark of human self-consciousness is really real and, we fear, even that is likely nothing more than a delusion from start to finish; a curse from a meaningless, mindless universe. This small spark of awareness, alone in a dead universe full of rocks and fury but no mind, suffers, knowing what the rocks do not. In this view there is only one way to end suffering: to become unaware like the dead rocks (which we assume is absolute).

Opposed to this is the ecological view. It is supported by the evidence of our sciences and the great spiritual traditions of our ancestors. This view sees that which we walk upon is not a dead rock but a living earth. It is a place in which every fully interdependent thread is inseparable from a feeling and a thought somewhere, somehow. This view comes to those willing to grant subjectivity to all living things and information, if not intelligent mind, to the very rocks themselves. This view is true, you know, within the great all-inclusiveness of interdependence. The view of absolutely dead things actually existing, as they say in Tibetan debate, is not the case.

Let the soil and the compost heap be our guides to understanding our earthly sojourn. In the soil we learn how even the rocks serve the needs of life, lending it support and critical functional elemental capabilities at the molecular level. From the compost heap we learn that even death is turned to the service of life. We learn that life and death are actually two sides of the same coin, complementary like a wave and a particle.

We have prided ourselves on our heroic stance. We human animals, alone of all the species, were made aware of what we are, our position in the great scheme of things. It was a lousy position, meaningless. But we put on our stiff upper lip and got on with the business at hand, namely making a lot of money. We compliment each other on the unique courage by which we can finally face who and what we really are: evolved apes that are little more than robots sent out to battle against the stars.

Oswald Spengler was sure the Faustian myth captured the essence of our western civilization. Faust, you will recall, was a great scholar but all his learning and studies left him unsatisfied. He longed for absolute knowledge, unlimited knowledge, with a healthy dose of worldly pleasures tossed in for good measure. The myth has captured our scientific devotion in its sketch. Science has given us unprecedented understanding of the molecular world, but has not satisfied the cravings for meaning lodged in the human heart.

To obtain these desires Faust makes a deal with the devil. Have our cultures not been willing to sacrifice moral integrity for the success we have achieved? Ah, but the devil was a liar from the beginning. The Cartesian split is a lie. It said we needed to make a choice between our hearts and heads.

We understood that knowledge was power and if there was anything this poor pathetic orphan of a species, all alone on this isolated dead rock circling a non-descript star needed, it was power. Due to the Cartesian error we expected we would have to pay the price of sacrificing our emotions to gain that knowledge. It was not so much that there would be no emotions along our way. Though we prided ourselves on our objectivity, in fact, as the Faust myth illustrates so poignantly, what we did was allow the search for knowledge to blind us to the truth of our emotional nature. In our hunt for achievement we bound ourselves to competition, blinding ourselves to the value of simplicity and contentment. Ethics and compassion took a back seat in our dealings with “the real world,” the one only we moderns ever had the courage to perceive truly.

These seem to be some of the unspoken assumptions of the world we live in. I don’t think they stand up to conscious, rational examination. The heroic stance we have taken in the west was for the sake of learning to think rationally about what is real. We made heroic sacrifices in our pursuit of that knowledge, for which we should be rightly proud. We should not let our disillusionment in its dark side delude us the way it is doing now.

What our Faustian program uncovered was exactly what it set out to find, a universe of dead rocks ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, thoroughly meaningless and without emotion. Just as a patient with a neurological disorder that prevents emotion from participating properly in their reasoning soon finds that their reasoning is ultimately meaningless, so to culturally; our search for knowledge at the price of emotion found the universe to be meaningless as well. Today, of course, we have learned that it is in the nature of things to find what we are looking for. Build an apparatus to find a wave and you will not capture data about particles, though that does not necessarily mean there is no particle data to be had if other tools were applied to the observations.

We moderns wonder, how could there be a feeling in the attraction of the electron to the proton? To entertain such thoughts, we are quite sure, is to indulge in the crudest anthropomorphism. Yet, we fear, if it is not there among the particles, how could it really be in any of the myriad things they produce, including ourselves? Are we no more than chemical robots, meat puppets fooling ourselves that our awareness of our awareness means something more, something else?

We trip up on the role of awareness. To admit the electron is ‘attracted’ to its mate with an element of love involved, seems to ascribe to elementary particles the same conscious awareness we are familiar with, which is patently absurd. Is it only metaphorical to say the electron is attracted to the proton like lovers? It must be. Yet… We are left wondering just what the role of metaphor actually is in the embodied minds we think with. In a world of will and representation, many of the modern conceptions of consciousness are just too small to carry the full burden of the evidence.

And because consciousness is directly accessible to everyone, we all know a lot more about all this than we tend to give ourselves credit for. It would be good if we could befriend this western wound. Compassion is called for. Goethe’s treatment of Faust is in two parts, the first of which ends in tragedy. Parallels with our own circumstances are obvious. Part two of Goethe’s Faust, written years after part one when Goethe was an older man, begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust, and mankind. How this, too, has parallels with our own circumstances is less obvious. It is the work of mindful ecology to encourage them. The final scene of Goethe’s masterpiece has Faust’s soul carried to heaven by the intercession of “Virgin, Queen of Motherhood… Eternal Womanhood.” The artful clue turns our attention to Gaia, Mother Earth, the living earth. Mephistopheles had fearfully threatened Faust that when he died he would encounter the absolute death spoken of earlier in this essay, the “Eternal Empty,” making his life meaningless. No, Goethe insists, the goddess beats the devil every time. There is only the compost heap, and the ongoing saga of our kind.

Subjectivity

Subjectivity is the Achilles’ Heel of modern science.

The discovery of quantum mechanics can be instructive. At the dawn of the twentieth century physicists were rather confident their discipline had captured the most essential aspects of how the physical world works. There were just a few experiments and observations that did not fit the prevailing theories, but for the most part the work of physics in the twentieth century would be one of, as Albert Michelson quipped (and lived to regret!), filling in the sixth decimal place. By 1927 the whole apple cart of our physical understanding would be overturned.

The items that did not fit the standard models of the physics of the day seemed to be rather small discrepancies. Three experimental results in particular were troubling. The first was what was known as the ultraviolet catastrophe associated with black body radiation, the solution of which would lead to Plank’s quantum of energy replacing the previous conception of energy as continuous. The second experiment was the photoelectric effect, which Einstein’s explained provided evidence that light could act as particles as well as waves. The third was bright line optical spectra, which would lead to the Bohr atom as the first atomic model to account for the discrete energy states being observed.

It is important to understand just how successful Newton’s gravitational theory had been in classical physics. Objects in motion were subject to rigorous analysis with the tool of the calculus and the conceptual abstractions of force and momentum with such accuracy we still use the same techniques in our age of satellites. It is also important to understand just how successful Maxwell’s wave theory of electromagnetism had been in classical physics to appreciate just how radical the coming of quantum mechanics really was. It was not just that the universe once thought to be continuous became discontinuous and radically momentary. A deterministic universe gave way to one ruled by probability.

Philosophy was there before science. Kant had identified space and time as absolute categories of thought, presenting us with the picture of the mindless, clockwork universe as the scaffolding on which the very ability to think at all depended. When relativity removed the absolute nature from time and space, the way was open for Schopenhauer to explain the world as will and representation. The subjectivity, the will, of what had been discovered in our hunt for objectivity was laid bare. The mechanical universe of classical physics, the one made in the image of our machines, gave way to, well, no one is quite sure just yet what the new picture of reality is trying to teach us. There are, however, clues.

The difference between determinism and probability is a very big deal. To glance for a moment at the headlines: the fundamentalist fanaticism of the true believer is built brick by brick from their certainties. Those who hold their truths more humbly, recognizing the limitations of human understanding, are less likely to forget logical inferences are founded on probability.

Classical science was understood to be dedicated to seeking a type of truth that was completely objective. The revolutionary scientific method insisted that opinions no longer be taken as facts. We learned to insist that if you make a claim about what is actually real and what is not, there needed to be evidence to back it up. The mathematical methods the sciences use are all designed to provide the type of knowledge that relies on measurable evidence. It was a revolution in where the ultimate authority, the final court of appeal, was to be found. No longer could the king, saint or pope declare what was and what was not, simply by virtue of their position. Facts took on a new importance. When the scientific revolution began this was indeed a very revolutionary position to take. It was also democratic. These scientific measurements could be taken by anyone anywhere and each person could prove for themselves the experiment properly performed lead to consistent results. The acceleration of gravity, as we learned in school, is 9.8 meters per second per second at sea level. It is so as much for a Chinaman as it is for an Englishman.

For those who really understood what this was all about the authority did not move from the kings, saints, and popes to the scientific experts. The authority moved into each person’s own eyes and hands by which they could handle the evidence for themselves and, most importantly, the authority of each person’s reason became recognized as the final court of appeal. Power can torture a man and make him recant his beliefs but only what is undeniably true for his reason carries the real power to persuade. (Mindful Ecology has suggested since its inception that every home that can should have mind tools at the ready; a telescope, microscope and access to encyclopedias. It is not what you read or watch that teaches best, it is what you do.)

Science insists its investigations remain grounded in the realms of evidence, which works to keep it deeply embodied in reality. This was a powerful blow against superstition. It was a liberation from our inherent gullibility and the conmen that have ever been at the ready to exploit it. On the other hand, the pursuit of scientific theory involves finding the right abstraction, the one that will capture the essence of what the embodied evidence is indicating. We do not do good science when we have one law of gravity for apples and another for planets. Those mathematical abstractions exist in a realm where the body of the thinker no longer seems to be playing any vital role at all. In the Platonic realm of pure mathematics where is blood and flesh? Over time the abstract was given more respect than the particular, standing things on their head. Our societies became even more committed to Descartes Error: reason defined as thought wholly uninfluenced by emotion came to be considered the summit of humanity’s capacity for understanding.

With the coming of quantum mechanics and relativity the role of the observer could no longer be ignored. Subjectivity is the blackbody radiation of our times, an indication that something fundamental is missing from our view of what is really going on: we do not know what the role of consciousness is in the universe.