Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Gem of a Book 2

A Gem of a Book 2

I have already alluded to the similarities of view between The Philosopher and the Wolf and Straw Dogs. It comes as little wonder that John Gray should endorse the first of these books once on the cover and once on the flyleaf. He lauds this book as a work of depth that calls on us to re-evaluate our view of “the human animal.” This last phrase is central to Gray’s understanding of humankind by situating us firmly in the animal kingdom. It is also a timely and subversive work – and indeed we need subversion as well as scepticism these days when capitalism has been let wreak untold damage on the fabric of the world’s economy through naked greed – which makes us question our unquestioned suppositions and presuppositions not alone of humans in general but of philosophers and scientists in particular.

Our Peculiar Stories

I use the adjective ‘peculiar’ in the sense of ‘particular to’ in the above subheading. Rowlands argues that we humans have a simian or ape-like soul. He continues thus:
I am going to try and show you that, for the most part, each one of us has the soul of an ape. I’m not investing too much in the word ‘soul.’ By ‘soul’ I don’t necessarily mean some immortal or incorruptible part of us that survives the death of our body. The soul may be like this, but I doubt it. Or it may be that the soul is simply the mind, and the mind is simply the brain. But again, I doubt it. As I am using the word, the soul of human beings is revealed in the stories they tell about themselves: stories about why they are unique; stories we humans can actually get ourselves to believe, in spite of all the evidence against them. These, I am going to argue, are stories told by apes: they have a structure, theme and content that is (sic) recognizably simian. (The Philosopher and the Ape, p. 5)

Animal Metaphors

A Young Mark Rowlands with his pet Wolf Brenin
Because language fails us miserably in its literal designations we have long been forced to forge metaphors to carry the weight of meaning we wish our words to carry. More often than not they are strong enough to carry this weight. Professor Rowlands uses the metaphor “ape,” and indeed, the corresponding adjective “simian” to refer to our tendency to understand the world in “instrumental terms.” For us humans the value of everything is judged by what it can do for us, that is, we are creatures prone to “instrumental reasoning” as the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor so neatly puts it. We see the world, quite literally as a collection of resources to be exploited for our own benefit, and more often than not for our own selfish purposes and aggrandisement. Once again, instrument reasoning can be summed up nicely in Oscar Wilde’s witty dictum that its possessors “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” According to Rowlands, the ape has the tendency to think that everything can be summed up, including the most important things in life, by a cost-benefit analysis.
However, over against the metaphor of the ape in us, Rowlands suggests rather obviously the metaphor of the wolf to balance things out for us. In every story told by the ape, our professor argues, we shall find a subplot or sub-story told by the wolf – that is, if we train ourselves to look carefully enough for this story. The wolf is howling away, if I may sustain the metaphor in a rather crass fashion, to remind us that the values if the ape are rather “worthless.” (ibid., p7) Our author argues that it is at our peril that we allow the wolf to die in us. Or to put it in more poetic terms as Professor Rowlands is wont to do:
But the most important you is not the one who schemes: it is the one who remains when the scheming fails. The most important you is not the one who delights in your cunning; it’s what’s left behind when the cunning leaves you for dead. The most important you is the one who rides your luck; it is the you who remains when the luck has run out. In the end the ape will always fail you. The most important question you can ask yourself is: when this happens, who will be left behind?” (Ibid., p. 8)

The lessons that Mark Rowlands learned over his eleven years spent with his pet wolf were visceral or gut-level ones, lessons which were essentially non-cognitive, lessons one might say of the heart, or even beneath the heart (my metaphor here). Indeed, in general, while I may have some reservations here and there which what our author contends, I am in broad agreement with him. I agree readily that life is indeed far “too slippery” for “premises and conclusions.” These are singularly Newmanian terms, though I’m sure our author does not realise this. As I have quoted many times before in these pages John Henry Cardinal Newman never tired of reminding us that the “whole man moves; paper logic is but a record of it.”

If you would like to hear Mark Rowlands discussing this book with a fellow professor at Miami University see WolfPhil

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Web of Life 17

Final Post on Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking 3

This will be my final post on Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life.  I wish here to resolve the dilemma I left readers with in the last post: that of a living world unfolding towards increasing order and complexity (evolution), and that of an engine running down, a world of ever-increasing disorder  (Second Law of thermodynamics). Who was right, Darwin or Carnot?

Fritjof Capra points out that the great Ludwig von Bertalanffy could not resolve this dilemma with the mathematics then available to him at that time (1940s).  However, he (L. v B.) did differentiate between what he termed closed and open systems.  He contended that all living organisms are open systems that simply cannot be described by classical thermodynamics.  He called such systems open because they need to feed on a continual flux of matter and energy from their environment to stay alive.  Closed systems settle easily into a state of equilibrium.  Open systems, on the other hand maintain themselves far from equilibrium by continual flow and change.  These systems were in "steady states" far from equilibrium.  Classical thermodynamics was only able to describe closed systems, not open ones like organisms.

The New Thermodynamics described mathematically by Ilya Prigogine

In the 1970s  Ilya Prigogine developed a new mathematics to re-evaluate the second law by radically rethinking traditional scientific views of order and disorder.  He thereby resolved the dilemma inherent in the clash between Darwin's and Carnot's theories described in my opening paragraph.  In the succinct words of Dr. Capra we read:
Bertalanffy correctly identified the characteristcs of the steady state as those of the process of metabolism, which led him to postulate self-regulation as another key property of open systems.  This idea was refined by Prigogine thirty years later in terms of the self-organization of "disippative structures."... However, during the last two decades after his [Bertalanffy's] death in 1972, a systemic conception of life, mind and consciousness began to emerge which transcends disciplinary boundaries, and, indeed, holds a promise of unifying various fields of study that were formerly separated.  Although this new conception of life has its roots more clearly in cybernetics than in general systems theory, it certainly owes a great deal to the concepts and thinking which Ludwig von Bartalanffy introduced into science. (Op. cit. supra, pp. 49-50)

How far this systemic conception of life  has gone to  unify various fields of study is unknown to this author who is neophyte in this area.  However, it is the drift and direction of systems thinking and its thrust to unity and to that elusive unifying principle of life that enthralls this author.  One hopes that this is no utopian dream, illusion or delusion even, or even that it might not be as futile as Dr Casaubon's (George Eliot's Middlemarch) "key to all mythologies" fixation.  However, I take great consolation from the ever questioning and sharp approach of all good philosophy in the Socratic sense of that word and also from the reluctance of all good thinkers worth their salt to engage in silly reductionist thinking which places the findings of their narrow science alone on a single foundation they believe to be the sole arbiter of truth.  Hence, my disappointment, nay impatience, with such reductionists as Dawkins, Hitchens et al who continue to argue so fundamentally and reductionistically from the narrow viewpoint of science or, at least of their conception of what science is, or from their own ideas solely (an arrogant stance I believe!).  Let us be open to knowledge from all sciences and all areas which pursue truths in a sincere, congruent and authentic manner.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Web of Life 16

Systems Thinking 2


This is a totally new concept for the present writer.  However, it is always great to discover something new.  Alexander Bogdanov (1873 - 1928) was the inventor or originator of this interesting concept.  He was quite a polymath with a political interest as he was a Russian physician, a philosopher, an economist, a science fiction writer, and a revolutionary of Belarusian ethnicity.  As well as all that he was a key figure in the early history of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, being one of its co-founders and a rival to the main man Vladimir Lenin until being expelled in 1909.  This system of Bogdanov remains largely unknown outside Russia, according to Dr Capra.  This Russian polymath called his theory 'tektology', from the Greek "tekton" meaning "builder."  In other words, here we have a return to the epistemological theory of building as a metaphor.  Another way of putting this is to call tektology "the science of structures."  Once again, in keeping with the overall systems approach to knowledge in any field, Bogdanov's main goal was to clarify and generalize the principles of organization of all living and even nonliving structures.  In the apt and succinct summary which Dr Capra offers us we read:
Tektology was the first attempt in the history of science to arrive at a systematic formulation of the principles of organization operating in living and nonliving systems... (The Web of Life, p. 44)
In this he prefigured the systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901,Vienna – June 12, 1972, Buffalo, USA)  and even the cybernetics theory proposed by Norbert Wiener (1894, Columbia, Missouri – 1964, an American mathematician) and Ross Ashby (1903 – 1972, an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. That a mathematician and a psychiatrist could have put forward a similar theory is nothing short of extraordinary, and exciting indeed, given the disparity of the subject area pursued by both sciences.

Using the terms "complex" and "system" interchangeably, Bogdanov outlined three different kinds of system: (i) organized complexes where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, (ii) disorganized complexes where the whole is smaller than the sum of the parts and (iii) neutral complexes where the organizing and disorganizing principles cancel each other out.  Now, the development of systems can be studied and understood, according to our Russian scholar, by examining two basic organizing mechanisms: (i) formation and (ii) regulation.

Bogdanov even allows for crises which, he believes, lead eventually to transformation into a more complex system.  Here, Dr Capra argues, that our Russian scholar anticipates the concept of catastrophe developed by the French mathematician René Thom (1923 –  2002).  Capra expresses considerable surprise that Ludwig von Bertalanffy who published his world-renowned General System Theory in 1968, and who was the leading scholar in his area should not have come across the ground-breaking work of Bogdanov called Tektology which was published in parts between 1912 and 1917.  Also, it is important to note that Marxist theorists of the day were hostile to Bogdanov's ideas.

Eventually over the decades of the twentieth century systems thinking became quite fashionable in scientific circles.  With the subsequent strong support from cybernetics, the concepts of systems thinking and systems theory became integral parts of the established scientific language.  Indeed there is talk today of systems engineering, systems analysis and systems dynamics and so on and so forth.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy was a biologist with a strong interest in philosophy who belonged to the Vienna Circle . He believed strongly that biological phenomena required new ways of thinking.  He set out to replace the mechanistic image of the foundations of science with a holistic vision.  Indeed he stated that its nearest approximation in the science of the late twentieth century was that of the mathematical field of probability.

Now, Capra informs us, and as a non-scientist I am somewhat baffled here, that as the new theory of evolution entered into general science as such, there was need for a new way of thinking to incorporate this complex notion of change, development or evolution.  One new way of thinking that was invented, our learned author informs us, is the new science of complexity.  When this new science of complexity was invented two new laws were proposed therein: viz., The First Law of Thermodynamics: This law is an expression of the principle of conservation of energy.
The law states that energy can be transformed, i.e. changed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.  The Second Law is the law of the dissipation of energy was formulated first by the French physicist Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (1796 – 1832) who stated, having observed and studied the technology of thermal engines, that there is a trend in physical phenomena from order to disorder.  To express this tendency to breakdown or disorder the physicists invented the new quantity of entropy.  In short, entropy is, then, a measure of disorder.  Let me here return to the succinct words of Dr Capra:
With the concept of entropy and the formulation of the second law, thermodynamics introduced the idea of irreversible processes, of an "arrow of time" into science.  According to the second law, some mechanical energy is always dissipated into heat that cannot be completely recovered.  Thus the entire world machine is running down and will eventually grind to a halt... At the end of the nineteenth century, then, Newtonian mechanics, the science of eternal, reversible trajectories, had been supplemented by two diametrically opposed views of evolutionary change - that of a living world unfolding towards increasing order and complexity, and that of an engine running down, a world of ever-increasing disorder.  Who was right, Darwin or Carnot?

To be continued.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Web of Life 15

Systems Thinking 2

What is the Truth?

Francis Bacon, scientist and statesman
I have touched on this topic many times before, and those first few lines from Francis Bacon's (1561 –1626) famous essay keep surfacing in my mind: "WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."  I have often questioned in these pages as to whether there is one singular truth or rather many different truths.  I have also questioned whether it is more correct to speak about the Truth, that is truth with a capital letter or to speak of the plural truths in lower case letters.  Many times have I written the often-quoted  assertion in these posts that we see the world not as it is, that is objectively, but rather as we are, that is, subjectively.  I'm rather cynical, then, as to whether we can arrive at the objective truth at all.  And yet to live in this matter-of-fact world, we have to accept many facts as given truths if we are to survive at all.  The great Victorian churchman and academic John Henry Cardinal Newman said something similar to my contention in the last sentence here - that the human mind has to accept ascribed certainties in lfe, otherwise we'd never make decisions. 

My opening remarks lead me on nicely to the following words from Dr. Capra:
Therefore, scientists can never deal with the truth, in the sense of a precise correspondence between the description and the described phenomenon.  In science, we always deal with limited and approximate descriptions of reality.  This may sound frustrating but for systems thinkers the fact that we can obtain approximate knowledge about an infinite web of interconnected patterns is a source of confidence and strength. (The Web of Life, p. 41)
Process Thinking
Alfred North Whitehead in pensive mood!
There are two strands of system thinking, viz., contextual thinking, which we have already discussed, and process thinking.  It is to this latter that we now turn our attention.  It is possible to trace elements of process thinking back to the ancients, especially back to Heraclitus who authored the famous dictum: "everything flows" as well as the saying that "one cannot step into the same river twice."  No wonder we speak of flow diagrams or flow charts when we discuss process thinking.  During the 1920s, the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead formulated a strongly process-oriented philosophy.  In opposition to the classical model of change as purely accidental and illusory (as by Aristotle), process philosophy regards change as the cornerstone of reality–the cornerstone of being thought as becoming. In physics Ilya Prigogine (1917 – 2003) distinguishes between the "physics of being" and the "physics of becoming".  (See here and here)

Another complementary concept is that of homeostasis.  The biologists Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon promoted the principle of the constancy of the organism's "internal environment" and refined it into the concept of homeostasis - which essentially is the self-regulatory mechanism that allows organisms to maintain themselves in a state of dynamic balance with their variables fluctuating between tolerance limits.  Metabolism of the individual cell combines order and activity in a way that cannot be described by mechanistic science.  Indeed, it requires thousands of chemical reactions - in short, it is a continual, complex and highly organized activity.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Web of Life 14

The Settled versus the Unsettled Mind

We humans like to be sure of things - we delight in certainties.  However, there are few certainties in this life, indeed, apart from such certainties that we shall all grow old, get ill sometimes and eventually die.  Insurance companies make money, and lots of it, on the back of the uncertainties that are part of life.  I remember a priest friend once summarising the Christian message for his congregation thus: "Jesus came into this world to comfort the disturbed and to to disturb the comfortable."  Whatever about one's religious stance or even lack of it, this sentence just quoted contains no little wisdom.  When we are too smug, we do need something to disturb us or wake us up from our indifferent slumber.  In like manner, Fritjof Capra is correct in his contention that traditional science based on the old reliable scientific method is all too comfortable insofar as it has a solid foundation.  As we have pointed out in the preceding post this building or architectural metaphor is just that - one metaphor among other metaphors.  Systems Thinking suggests another metaphor - that of Network(s). "For some scientists such a view of knowledge as a network with no firm foundations is extremely unsettling, and today it is by no means generally accepted." (The Web of Life, p. 39)

The Beauty of Philosophy

The beauty of philosophy for me, and for so many others, is that it is a restless questioning, a questioning which never stops and even ruthlessly questions our own assumptions and presumptions, and hopefully our prejudices.  It also seeks to question our motivations as individuals and as a society.  The philosophy of science must do the same.  Indeed, as one who studied mathematics for some three years at university, I am well aware that there are many areas within that subject and each of those areas has its own specific axioms (or unquestioned assumptions or fundamentals upon which that area is based).  I am also aware that, when one changes one's basic axioms or, say, changes from one geometry to another, the resulting mathematics will be different.  Each of these geometries is logical and sound within its own area and according to the axioms on which it is built (I am, of course, using a building metaphor here!).  However, when we transfer axioms from one specific area into another distinct area, they can be simply meaningless.  The beauty of philosophy, too, then, is that it trains the mind to think outside the box and it enables the mind to change from one " box" to another with a certain ease or facility.


Objectivity has always been a concern for humankind.  As a student I remember that we used to hand up the same essay to different teachers to see what score we would get and to see how accurate or objective our teachers really were.  Oftentimes the results differed, but, thankfully not markedly.   Also as a teacher who has done a certain amount of official corrections, I have always been scrupulous in taking the chief examiner's and other more local examiners' advice into consideration.  In other words, we have to work hard at being objective, that is, objectivity is not a given at all.  Scientist believe that the twin approaches of  empiricism and the scientific method are totally objective. And yet, philosophy can raise questions about how objective such so-called objectivity really is.  Returning to the words of Fritjof Capra, we read:

Another important implication of the view of reality as a inseparable network of relationships concerns the traditional concept of scientific objectivity.  In the Cartesian paradigm, scientific descriptions are believed to be objective.i.e., independent of the human observer and the process of knowing.  The new paradigm implies that epistemology - understanding of the process of knowing - has to be included explicitly in the description of natural phenomena." (Ibid., p. 39)
We see things not as they are, but as we are:

Some sources tell us that this piece of wisdom is written in the Talmud. Shakyamuni Buddha said the same thing, in different words: "All existence is conditioned." As a result of that conditioning, our perception is skewed, and as a result of living based on skewed perception.

Some years back, the great musician Joshua Bell played incognito in a metro station by way of an experiment that was organized by The Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. He played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell had sold out at a theater in Boston and the seat price was $100. The outlines of this project were: (i) In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour do we perceive beauty? (ii) Do we stop to appreciate it?  (iii) Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context? Very few people noticed his brilliance at all, or that this was a world-famous musician.  Most passed by and he was acknowledge by some 32 $ in his hat!

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing? Is it because 'We don't see things as they are but we see things as we are?'

Capra once again returns to Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901 – 1976) who was a German theoretical physicist who made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics and is best known for asserting the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. In addition, he made important contributions to nuclear physics, quantum field theory, and particle physics.  This wonderful theoretical physicist said: "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." (ibid., p. 40)

Paradigm Shift

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and fathered, defined and popularized the concept of "paradigm shift" which basically can be seen as a change from one way of thinking to another. It's a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis. It just does not happen, but rather it is driven by agents of change. The same can be said, I believe, about the change to Systems Thinking: "[t]hus systems thinking involves a shift from objective to 'epistemic' science;  to a framework in which epistemology - 'the method of questioning' - becomes an integral part of scientific theories." (Ibid., p. 40)

Big Question

As I have been literally singing an encomium to the importance of philosophy above, we must now ask a very big question.  If everything is connected to everything else, how can we ever hope to understand anything?  Well, while there may not today be the Cartesian idea of the total certainty of science, there exists today what we may term "approximate knowledge."  In the new paradigm of science - that of interconnection, connectivity and networks, it is recognised that all scientific concepts and theories are limited and approximate.  Science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding.  For that matter neither can theology or philosophy or literature or any other human enterprise.

The best way, dear reader, to end this post is surely with the great declaration of Socrates that the beginning of all wisdom lies in our declaration of our ignorance.  Only from there can we hope to learn anything.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Web of Life 13

Systems Thinking 1

Gravestone and Cobweb, Roscrea Cemetery, 2007

These days I am pursuing an interdisciplinary course in Human Development at a local college and one of the subjects we have studied is Feminisms and Theories of Care.  Therein, we have discussed the traditional hierarchical nature of societies.  Capra et al inform us the nature itself does not work in a hierarchical fashion.  Rather it works in a network fashion, with networks resting within networks.  In the insightful words of Dr Capra we read: "We tend to arrange these systems, all nesting within larger systems, in a hierarchical scheme by placing the larger systems above the smaller ones in pyramid fashion.  But this is a human projection." (The Web of Life, p. 35).

So in nature, the, Capra et al argue that there are no "aboves" or "belows" and no hierarchies.  Instead there are only networks within networks. 

Central Points of Systems Thinking

  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Living systems are all integrated wholes that cannot be reduced to a sum of its individual parts.  It's the interconnections and interrelationships between parts that really matter.  In other words , we might say that the function of the parts is in fact "systemic."

  • Systems thinking is the ability to shift one's attention back and forth between systems levels.  Capra argues that when stress is applied to an organism, a city or an economy we will gain insight into how that particular system works.

  • While there is no hierarchy within systems thinking there are different levels within a system that represent levels of different complexity.

  • Works in an opposite way to Cartesian thinking which believed that in any complex system the behaviour of the whole could be analysed in terms of the properties of its parts.  Systems science shows that living systems cannot be understood by analysis.  The properties of parts are not intrinsic properties, but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole.  In other words systems thinking is contextual thinking.

  • Ultimately, there are no parts at all, Dr Capra argues (ibid., p. 37). What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships.

  • The traditional metaphor for science has come from the building or architectural world, and no wonder, indeed, because all human beings (indeed all animals) need to construct a shelter in which to live.  Hence we speak of fundamental laws, foundational principles, basic building blocks etc.  Descartes spoke about "the shifting foundations" of philosophy upon which no solid science could be built.

  • Yet, three hundred years later Heisenberg could say that these very foundations of physics (indeed of all the sciences) were themselves not very solid.  In fact the foundations were shifting:  "the foundations of physics have started moving." (Heisenberg as quoted in Capra, ibid., p. 38)

  • In the new systems thinking, the metaphor of knowledge as a building is being replaced by that of the network.  This attention to metaphor, here, and our use of them, indeed our almost unconscious or unthinking use of them needs to be re-visited and thought about quite seriously as they do highlight our unthinking presuppositions.  In some old rabbinical tale or other I read over the years, I remember an old rabbi telling one of his disciples that what he had learned from a long life was that one should always question one's motivations.  Brilliant.  We should constantly question our motivations and indeed our presuppositions, and consequently our unthinking use of language.  This is where philosophy comes in and where poor old Descartes went wrong!

  • Interestingly, Capra alludes to Geoffrey Chew's famous concept of "bootstrap philosophy" where the notion of scientific knowledge as a network of concepts and models, in which no part is any more fundamental than the others.  This "bootstrap philosophy" abandons the idea of fundamental building-blocks of matter and accepts no fundamental entities whatsoever, whether equations or otherwise.  The universe itself is seen as a dynamic web of interrelated events.

  • Now all of these points above imply that physics can no longer be seen as the most fundamental level of science.  Since there are no foundations in the network, the phenomena described by physics are not any more foundational than those described by biology or chemistry or psychology or any other science.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Web of Life 12

The Power of Images

Roscrea Graveyard, September'07.  Spider's web on cross

Every writer, indeed every human being one could say, is well aware of the potency of images.  Images speak louder than a thousand words.  Indeed, our memories are crammed packed with myriads of them and, in a sense, we are our memories.  No wonder we are suckers for good images.  Likewise, when Dr Fritjof Capra was choosing a title for his wonderful book a central image shot to his mind, viz., that of the web.  The idea of "The Web of Life" is a very ancient one indeed.  It has been used by mystics, sages, poets and philosophers throughout the ages to convey their sense of the unity - nay, interwovenness and interlinked nature of all phenomena.  Indeed, Capra informs us that he chose his image from the marvellous speech attributed to Chief Seattle.  Hence, it may not be too inappropriate to place a copy of the full text of that speech hereunder.  Even though the provenance of the speech has been disputed, this point need not delay us here as we are merely (or, more properly, wholly) concerned with the spirit and power of the words and images that with the true identity of its author. It is likely that the following words are not those of Chief Seattle.

"The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.
As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.
One thing we know - there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all."  (See here for text: Inauthentic Version )
There does exist a truer version of the original speech by Chief Seattle and it can be found here: Authentic Version

Sammis' portrait of Chief Seattle.
It is the first version or the inauthentic one that contains the image of the "web of life."  It is a far more poetic version than the original authentic speech.  However, one can see how the former is based on the latter as foundational text.  There is much we moderns can learn from the simplicity of ancient religions, or more specifically from ancient spiritualities which certainly had a high respect for nature and for the life of planet Earth, for the sacredness of her soil, and indeed for humans whom they saw as just another part of nature.  It was Christianity, following on the Jewish preoccupation with being the "chosen" or favoured "people of God," that placed humankind (or mankind as Judaism/Christianity puts it) at the topmost point of that creation.  That such beliefs led, not alone to hubris and pride, but also to the torture, enslavement and murder of what they would have seen, and possibly still do see still, as "less important" races.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Web of Life 11

Suspended wheel outside a tyre business near me.

Encountering Wholeness

Way back in 1994 as part of my S.T.L. degree I wrote a thesis on Faith and Theological Method in the Works of John Henry Newman Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was one of the foremost minds of nineteenth century England as well as being the greatest stylist of the period in the English language.  In short, he wrote angelic prose.  Anyway, in that thesis I adverted to Newman's obsession with wholeness or holism, somewhat way before holism was known as a way of perceiving things or of approaching problems.  Here, in summary, is what I wrote then:

From his experience of life Newman was deeply conscious that our permanent convictions and beliefs are reached, not by the intellect alone, but by the whole person functioning as a thinking, feeling and willing unity.  This he calls our 'compound nature.'  He found it simply impossible to be a reductionist, to think otherwise than in continual reference to the whole.  In all his writings Newman was continually aware of the partial character of his viewpoint on any specific subject... [In the Apologia] he insists that in any controversy in which he was involved that he had 'a great impatience, whatever was the subject, of not bringing out the whole of it, as clearly as I could'  Nowhere did he express this basic vision with greater force than in the following often-quoted passage from the same book: 'For myself it was not logic then that carried me on... It is the concrete being that reasons; pass a number of years and I find myself in a new place; how? the whole man moves; paper logic is but a record of it.' (Tim Quinlan op.cit. supra, p. 41)
The Holism of Ecology

In summary, then, organismic biologists came across irreducible wholeness in organisms.  Thereafter, quantum physicists encountered it in atomic phenomena and Gestalt psychologists found it in perception itself.  Then, along came the ecologists and they encountered this thrust to wholeness in their studies of animal and plant communities.  As Dr Fritjof Capra puts it so succinctly: "The new science of ecology emerged out of the organismic school of biology during the nineteenth century, when biologists began to study communities of organisms." (The Web of Life, p. 33)  The German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919) coined the term "ecology" in 1866 and defined it thus: 'the science of relations between the organism and the surrounding outer world.' (Ibid., p. 33)

The War of Terminologies

The word "Umwelt" or "environment" was used for the first time in 1909.  One Charles Elton (1900 – 1991) introduced the concepts of food chains and food cycles.  Another called Frederick Clements  (1874 - 1945), an American plant ecologist introduced the concept of viewing plant communities as 'super-organisms.'  A British plant ecologist, one A.G. Tansley (1871 - 1955)  countered this concept with the idea of the 'ecosystem.'  He maintained that his new term was more accurate and more precise than Clements' concept, and that it characterised both animal and plant communities. 

The term 'biosphere' was first used in the late nineteenth century by the Austrian geologist Eduard Suess (1831–1914) to describe the layer of life surrounding the Earth.  A few decades later, the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863 – 1945) published a fully researched book called Biosphere.   Capra informs us that of all the early writing and research on the living Earth Vernadsky's comes closest to the contemporary Gaia theory advanced and developed by the modern scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Magulis in the 1970s.  I have written about the Gaia hypothesis before - see here and following posts.  James Lovelock's own web page can be accessed here - Lovelock )

Enriching Systems Thinking

Ecology enriched Systems Thinking with two other concepts - those of community and network.  Returning to Dr Capra's own words, we read:

Today we know that most organisms are not only members of ecological communities but are also complex ecosystems themselves, containing a host of smaller organisms that have considerable autonomy and yet are integrated harmoniously into the functioning of the whole... Over billions of years of evolution, many species have formed such tightly knit communities that the whole system resembles a large, multicreatured organism.  Bees and ants, for example, are unable to survive in isolation, but in great numbers they act almost like the cells of a complex organism with a collective intelligence and capabilities for adaptation far superior to those of its individual members.  Similar close coordination of activities exist also among different species, where it is known as symbiosis, and again the resulting living systems have the characteristics of single organisms. (Ibid., p. 34)
In brief, then, my argument here, drawing on Newman (theology) and modern science with Dr Fritjof Capra, is that the thrust to wholeness or unity is perennial with respect to the human quest for meaning.  On the one hand, those who want to figure out how things work are fundamentally concerned with parts and how these work, even with atomism, that is attempting to continually divide things to arrive at foundational bricks as it were.  On the other hand philosophers, literati and others are concerned with striving to see the whole picture in whatever they are investigating at a particular time.  In sum, then, I should like to finish with the words of one of my favourite Romantic poets and philosophers and critics, viz., S.T. Coleridge, words which get to the essence of my intentions in this post.   Coleridge once said that the human thrust to meaning could best be summed up in the words "to see the unity behind the multeity."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Web of Life 10


Some children like to break their toys up to see what they are made of, and some few of these like to see if they can get them back together again.  Breaking things down as well as building things up have always been preoccupations of humankind.  I was never one of those boys who liked to break his toys - this combination of words sounds distinctly like the start of a poem, does it not?  Be that as it may, we often wonder literally how far we can say keep cutting a piece of wood in half.  In other words what we are searching for here is an answer to the question: Is there an ultimate, indivisible unit of matter?  The WIKI gives us the following insight into the history of atomism:

In the 5th century BC, Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms, in order to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought on the nature of reality. On one side was Heraclitus, who believed that the nature of all existence is change. On the other side was Parmenides, who believed instead that all change is illusion.Parmenides denied the existence of motion, change and void. He believed all existence to be a single, all-encompassing and unchanging mass (a concept known as monism), and that change and motion were mere illusions. (See Atomism )

Beyond Atomism to Quantum Physics

We are firmly in the age of Quantum Physics.  We have left the atomistic world of Democritus and even of the more recent pre-Quantum physics times behind us.  Indeed Dr. Fritjof Capra tells us, should we need reminding, that subatomic particles have no meaning as separate things or entities in themselves.  He informs us, rather, that they are "interconnections, and these, in turn, are interconnections between other things, and so on.  In quantum theory we never end up with any "things"; we always deal with interconnections." (The Web of Life, p. 30).  In short, this means that we simply cannot break down or decompose the world into independently existing elementary units.  This is a huge idea to get our minds around and we need to comtemplate it because there is deep mystery at work here.  Contemplating on this we arrive at interesting insights like the fact that the further we penetrate down we come across no basic isolated building blocks but rather we encounter a profound and complex web of inter-relationships and suble connections and interconnections that somehow make up a unified whole which we might call the reality of this world.  As a virtual neophyte in the world of sub-atomic physics it is interesting to read the following from Capra:

In the formalism of quantum theory, these relationships are expressed in terms of probabilities, and the probabilities are determined by the dynamics of the whole system.  Whereas in classical mechanics the properties and behaviours of the parts determine those of the whole, the situation is reversed in quantum mechanics: it is the whole the determines the behaviour of the parts. (Ibid., p.31)
Gestalt Psychology

"Gestalt" is the German word for "organic form," and this much discussed area was known as the "Gestaltproblem" in the German language.  By "organic form" is meant animate or living form as distinct from inanimate.  The philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels was the first scholar to use the word "gestalt" in the sense of an irreducible perceptual pattern and this led to the founding of the school of gestalt psychology.  It was Ehrenfels who coined the well-known sentence that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."  This famous saying has now become the mantra or motto of systems thinkers everywhere.  It was Max Wertheimer and and Wolfgang Kohler who set the Gestalt Movement going, and they maintained that the existence of irreducible wholes was central to perception.  Hence, the notion of pattern was always to the fore in this school of psychology.  Like the organismic biologists, these psychologists saw their particular take on perception as a third way beyond mechanism and vitalism.  Capra reminds us that there a complete holistic zeitgeist reigned supreme during the entire Weimar period of rule in Germany.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Our Word is Our Bond

The National Library Paris, home to billions of words!

Everywhere we go we are surrounded by words.  We hear them, we see them and we give voice to them.  They can be used in practically every imaginable situation that a human being can participate in, provided, of course, that the person in question is not deaf and/or dumb.  Words are specific to our species - homo sapiens. They mark us out from our brother and sister animals who can communicate in some lesser fashion through sounds and movements.

Words can be either spoken or written.  Both forms are powerful beyond measure, but perhaps the spoken word is the more powerful of the two because it is more immediate as the main constituent of interpersonal communication.  Words can lift us up or drag us down, or wound us deeply or even heal our hearts.  They have the power to break confidences - after all, we all know people to whom we would never confide certain information as they have loose tongues.  Words also have the power to build life-long alliances - after all, we also know people for whom their word is their bond, their most sacred oath.  These are they who always manage to keep their word.

I remember the actor Paul Scofield in Robert Bolt's wonderful play on the life of Sir Thomas More wonderfully declaiming the following on the theme of word as bond: "When a man takes an oath," Sir Thomas explains to his daughter Margaret in a crucial scene, "he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water.  And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loath to think your father one of them."

Words can cause conflict between friends and neighbours and even between nations.  Words can make or break us, both as individuals and as a society.  As a teacher, I am well aware of the power of words both to break down and to build up; to annoy and to compliment; to hassle and to cheer; to encourage and discourage, and to wound and to heal.  The other day I was involved in a small intervention between one sixteen year old boy and his peers.  This student had mocked two of his classmates for being what he termed "cappers" ( that is, "handicappers" or handicapped because they had SNAs (Special Needs Assistants) for their ADHD).  This term had hurt the two boys in question  and we talked it through in a small group and reached a resolution.  Thankfully, the intervention worked.  Again words worked their magic as they were able to rectify to a great extent the bullying situation.  I am loathe to use the word "heal" here as I don't believe anything of that depth happened.

I am writing these words here now, having been mulling over in my mind the unthinking recent words of the Lord Mayor of Naas who left himself wide open to inciting racial hatred by declaring on local radio that he would cease to represent black Africans because of their gross bad manners and aggressiveness.  Literally, within minutes the radio stations received many complaints and Fine Gael, one of the Government parties, to which the said mayor belonged, distanced itself immediately from his remarks.  The upshot of all this was the mayor's resignation, and rightly so.  In fairness, no alone did he resign, but he also apologised profusely.  Again rightly so. The media has widely covered this case here in Ireland.  Here are his contrite and sincere words spoken on our Marion Finucane Show some Saturdays ago:
The comments were totally the wrong thing to say.  I retract every single word of it and I am so genuinely sorry.  I am not a racist.  What I said was not what I meant in my heart and soul.  I didn’t put enough thought into it.  Obviously I was expressing my own personal view of dealings I had with regards to council workings with some people but I knew what I said was wrong.  You cannot, you just cannot paint an entire continent with one brush by saying something like that.  You just can’t do that.   That’s unforgivable.  I should have said that I would not deal with anybody who is aggressive.  We have aggressive Irish.  We have aggressive other nationalities.  But what I said was that I wouldn’t deal with black Africans and that’s wrong, you can’t say that.
As I was listening to these words I was almost cringing, not because these words were insincere - they were indeed sincere - but because the man had made such a stupid unthinking mistake which no one in public life should make, and then stupidly declare those views publicly on radio.  The poor man has learnt a hard and harsh lesson, and indeed rightly so.  Words are powerful, very powerful and they should never be used unthinkingly.  Likewise, here in this blog, I have always done my utmost to use temperate words and express equally temperate and balanced opinions.  Words can be used to incite hatred of others, to break down relationships rather than building up relationships and connections, which I firmly believe that life is all about.  Previous to this, I have been writing my comments on Dr Fritjof Capra's wonderful book The Web of Life which is all about exactly that, the building up of connection between all of us who inhabit this little blue planet.

In the Irish language we have a wonderful proverb or seanfhocal which runs: "Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón."  This proverb translates as: "It is often that a person's mouth broke his nose!"  I have dealt with many angry pupils over the nearly 32 years of teaching, young men who have possessed very short fuses indeed, and I have often seen them sporting many a black eye for their troubles.

And so, dear reader, ask yourself a few questions.  Do you use temperate words?  Do you weigh your words before you express them?  Do you "shoot from the hip," rather than pausing to think before you speak. What have you been saying lately? Have your words been positive and uplifting?   Have they been ones that build up rather than tear down?  After all, the words you speak can have a profound effect on the people they reach.  Are you encouraging or discouraging?  Are you building up your children, your spouse, your friend or even the stranger you pass on the street? Or are you tearing down your own family with words of criticism, bitterness and judgment? Are you causing the destruction of your self-esteem by speaking ill suited words over yourself, your health and prosperity?

Let me finish with a quotation, this time from the great novelist Joseph Conrad.  Let us contemplate them, because our words carry our very self in all its authenticity in their utterance:

Words have set whole nations in motion… Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Web of Life 9

Snail on holly (?) bush in Santry Park, October 2010
Chapter 2 is a chapter literally bulging with information, rich thought, insightful reflection in both philosophy and in the natural sciences, so continuing to meditate upon it is no waste of time.  Many scholars from both disciplines are discussed.  Dr Capra ranges across the whole gamut of scientific development from the time of the ancient Greeks like Pythagoras (b. circa 570 B.C.E.) , Plato (b. circa 424 B.C.E.), and Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.E.) right down to Max Wertheimer (b. 1880, Gestalt psychologist), Werner Heisenberg (b. 1901, physicist), Vladimir Vernadsky (geochemist, 1863-1945), James Lovelock (b.1919) and Lynn Margulis (b. 1938).  These latter two are medical researcher and biologist respectively and originators and promoters of the Gaia Hypothesis which I have already discussed in these pages. (See Here and following posts.)

Pythagoras was both a philosopher and a mathematician.  He was the discoverer of what is now eponymously called Pythagoras' Theorem which is known to every schoolboy and girl worth their salt.  It is also suggested (though it may be mythological) that he discovered the mathematical basis of  the musical scales.  Another myth attributed to him is that he was the originator of the phrase "the music of the spheres."  However,  whatever about the provenance of these statements, what is true is that Pythagoras was very interested in numbers and was essentially the founder of number theory.  He was the first mathematician to be interested in the patterns made by numbers rather than the "substance" of numbers.  For the Pythagoreans, number gave matter its form and shape.  Aristotle agreed with this, and argued that form had no separate existence but was immanent in matter. In this, these philosophers (and mathematicians) differed greatly from Plato who believed that the "Idea" of 2 differed vastly, in fact was a a different entity from any representations of that number in nature.

Dr Capra continues to trace Systems Thinking all the way from William Blake through the Romantic Movement, both in England and in Germany, where Immanuel Kant (born 1724) argued that organisms, in contrast to machines, are self-reproducing and self-organizing wholes.  He further traces its long history through "vitalism."  Here are the words of the learned Dr Capra which express this latter concept way more clearly that I can:
Vitalism and organicism are both opposed to the reduction of biology to physics and chemistry.  Both schools maintain that, although the laws of physics and chemistry are applicable to organisms,  they are insufficient to fully understand the phenomenon of life.  The behaviour of a living organism as an integrated whole cannot be understood from the study of its parts alone.  As the system theorists would put it several decades later, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. (The Web of Life, p. 25)
Systems Thinking

Basically systems thinking is all about connectedness, relationships and contexts.  According to systems thinking, the essential properties of any living system or organism are properties which belong to the whole and not to any individual parts as such.  These properties arise from the interactions and relationships between the individual parts in the organism.  Dr Capra highlights  Paul Alfred Weiss (1898-1989), the Austrian biologist, as one of the founders of this school of thinking.  Indeed, the great shock of twentieth-century science, he argues, has been that systems cannot be understood by analysis.  The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties, but can only be understood in the context of the larger whole.  Once again, in the succinct words of Fritjof Capra:

Thus the relationship between the parts and the whole has been reversed.  In the systems approach, the properties of the parts can be understood only from the organization of the whole.  Accordingly, systems thinking does not concentrate on basic building-blocks but rather on the basic principles of organization..  Systems thinking is contextual, which is the opposite to analytical thinking.  Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of the larger whole. (Ibid., pp.29-30)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Web of Life 8

Turf in Girly Bog near Trim, Co. Meath
Here I am returning to Fritjof's Capra's wonderful book The Web of Life.  In so doing I wish to recapitulate a little of what I said in the last post on that topic.  Dr. Capra in this book reminds us that Immanuel Kant taught modern humankind in the wake of the Enlightenment that organisms, in contrast to machines, are self-reproducing and self-organizing wholes. This philosopher, Capra argues, thereby became the first philosopher to use the term "self-organization" as applied to organisms.  Indeed, Kant used this term it in a profoundly modern way.   This profoundly modern way is in keeping with the thought of the likes of Dr James Lovelock who invented the Gaia hypothesis which I have discussed in these pages already. (See Here) Therefore, in the simplest of sentences, then, what Capra, Lovelock and indeed this present author is getting at, may be stated thus: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

If we were to draw a line down the centre of a page and write the title "Parts" on one side of the line and "Whole" on the other side and then brainstorm the words or terms or ideas or concepts that come into our minds under the relevant column we might get something like this:

Parts                                                               Whole

Machines                                                         Animals, Humans, Organisms, Beings

Mechanistic                                                     Organismic

Reductionist                                                     Holist

Atomistic                                                          Ecological

Plainness                                                          Pattern

Simplicity                                                        Complexity

Substance                                                        Shape/Form

Soul-less/Lifeless                                            Soulful/Life-giving

Separateness                                                    Unity

Lack of organization                                       - Self-organizing (Kant)

                                                                        - Self-completing (Aristotelian entelechy)

Measured/quantified                                        Immeasurable, unquantifiable

Matter                                                               Mind

Descartes (Cartesian Dualism)                        Unity of Being, Body-Soul/Soul-Body Unity

- John Henry Newman (“The whole man moves.”)

Quantity                                                           Quality

Observation                                                     Experience

Cost                                                                 Value

Prosaic                                                             Poetic

Exoteric                                                           Esoteric/Mystical

Reason                                                             Heart

Enlightenment                                                 Romanticism

Objective/Inert Planet                                     Living Planet

Objective/Inert Planet                                   - Biochemistry and Vitalism (Hans Driesch)

Mechanistic Biology (Jacques Loeb)              - Organismic Biology

Parts Thinking                                                 Systems Thinking (Paul Weiss)

Newtonian Physics                                         Quantum Physics

Connections                                                    Interconnections

Going it alone                                                 Networking    

The above brainstorm was my attempt to get at what Dr Fritjof Capra is underscoring in chapter 2 of The Web of Life which is entitled "From the Parts to the Whole". 

Systems Thinking

Woodland scene, Girly Bog, Co. Meath.
Dr Capra informs us that systems thinking is very much the child of biology.  I will return to the learned doctor's succinct words here by way of explanation:
The main characteristics of systems thinking emerged simultaneously in several disciplines during the first half of the [twentieth] century, especially during the 1920s.  Systems thinking was pioneered by biologists, who emphasised the view of living organisms as integrated wholes.  It was further enriched by gestalt psychology and the new science of ecology, and it had perhaps the most dramatic effects in quantum physics.  (Op. cit., p. 17)