Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Web of Life 6

Perceptions and Patterns

Rotten tree (pattern): Newbridge House, July 2006
I have already underscored the fact in previous posts that our perceptions dictate how we act in the world.  If we see the world in a sort of blinkered way, we certainly will not reach our full potential as human beings.  Working with kids who suffer much from low self-esteem involves helping them to look upon themselves and the world with a new and more open vision.  I have also quoted so many times that we see the world as we are and not as it really is.  We are biased and handicapped by our rearing, and if that rearing has been negative, even difficult, if not tragic, it will be hard to move on, to learn to see the world from a more positive perspective.  Moving on will involve changing our perception about ourselves and indeed, about the world in which we live.

Another way of putting this would be to say that we have to learn to see more positive rather than negative patterns in our lives.  I have already mentioned that systems thinking was pioneered in the first part of the twentieth century by the biologists and built upon by wonderful scientists like Fritjof Capra and James Lovelock in more recent years.  However, there was a turn towards systems thinking in many other disciplines, too.  In psychology it flowered into Gestalt Psychology per se and into its therapeutic offspring Gestalt Therapy.  Another word for "pattern" here would be "shape" or "form."   Now my introduction to "shape" and "form" goes back to my study of Greek philosophy in 1976/7 with the Rev. Professor Horgan, then retired from UCD, but still keeping his "hand in" at 80 years of age at our college.  He introduced us to the Aristotelian concepts of matter (hulê) and form (eidos, morphê) and to what that philosopher called the hylomorphic compounds, that is, compounds of matter and form. As I recollect it, this theory is quite arcane and far more complex than it at first seems.  However, the twin concepts of matter (sometimes confused with substance in the writings of modern scientists/writers like our present writer Capra, whereas substance or ousia was distinct from matter for Aristotle who saw the former as the pure essence of something as distinct from matter) and form are still wonderfully useful concepts for us moderns. (See this link for a good introduction to Aristotle's philosophy: here )

Matter (or Substance as used as a synonym in Capra's modern understanding of the word) and
form correspond respectively to the terms structure and quantity on the one hand, and pattern, order and quality on the other. In short, then, the new Deep Ecological approach of the New Paradigm is to emphasize  pattern, order and quality, while accepting the reality of the solidity of matter in itself.  It is interesting to note that the ancient Pythagoreans, who preceded Aristotle emphasized form, shape and pattern over against substance or matter, that is, they emphasized number and number theory, essentially the philosophy or aesthetics of that theory.  In other words, they saw theory of numbers as giving shape and form and structure to matter, in other words as limiting it to a certain shape.

Matter and form, then, are essentially two sides of the one coin for Aristotle.  In contrast to Plato, Aristotle believed that form had no separate existence but was immanent in matter.  The process of the self-realization of the essence (ousia or substance of in pure Aristotelian thought, I believe, but could be open to correction here!) in the actual phenomena he called entelechy or "self-completion." It is essentially a vital force that directs an organism towards self-fulfillment.  Indeed, I viewed a wonderful TV programme on BBC 4 recently on Chaos Theory which noted empirically several examples of the thrust towards order, shape and form in the apparently chaotic world of our universe.

It is interesting that modern scientists like Fritjof Capra and James Lovelock and the greener scientific fringe are turning to this ancient Aristotelian thrust towards holism, shape, pattern and form.  In my last post I spoke of the thrust towards "atomization", breaking things up into ever smaller and distinct parts which happened with the Cartesian mechanistic thrust of science in the sixteenth and following centuries, so I shan't delay on that here.

The Turn to the Self as Whole

Medieval building, Rouen, June, 2006
The turn to the Self as a whole, or as an Integrated Unity, is also one of the major advances in psychology qua psychology and the more popular incarnations of that same subject in modern times.  I was much taken by the fact that Capra quotes one of my favourite modern psychiatrists, a real humanitarian who did much to put the suffering person centre stage in psychiatry, namely R.D. Laing, who noted that Galileo and other scientists of the Copernican mechanistic turn of mind offer us nothing short of "a dead world" where "experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse."  (Quoted The Web of Life, p. 19)  It is worth reminding ourselves that R.D. Laing was an existentialist writer and therapist.

Descartes, philosopher and mathematician, split the human being into Mind and Matter (Body: Mechanism).  The material world (including living organisms) in the Cartesian scheme of things is no more than a machine which can be understood completely in terms of its smallest parts.  The Mind is a ghost in a Machine.  While later biologists did react negatively to this mechanical view of nature by Descartes, for the large part, though, they believed that the laws of biology can ultimately be reduced to those of traditional mechanistic physics.  This was quintessentially summed up in the famous book from the French Enlightenment philosopher and physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709 – 1751), who was one of the earliest of the French materialists.  This was a book called infamously  L'homme machine ("Machine man"). Therein he rejected the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and proposed the metaphor of the human being as machine.

The Call of Romanticism

The Garravogue River, July 2006 - Romantic inspiration!
When we even cursorily look at history we find that conservative periods are followed by more liberal ones, eras of more rationalistic thought are followed by ones which tend to highlight human feelings.  The call of Romanticism was just that, a call to the world of the feelings and instincts after the stifling rationalism of Cartesian mechanistic thought and science.  In this light, one of my all time favourite poets and mystics ( see), William Blake was a passionate critic of this mechanistic view of the universe and of human beings, who are part of it, and focused his sharp and pointed criticism on Newton whom he saw as a symbol of that almost demonic mechanistic world: "May God us keep/From single vision and Newton's sleep." (Quoted ibid., p. 21)

In answering the call of the heart and of the feelings, the German Romantic poets and philosophers returned to the Aristotelian tradition by concentrating on the nature of organic form.  Goethe, in the field of literature and Immanuel Kant in that of philosophy considered nature in itself to be purposeful and full of order.  The latter also argued forcefully in his Critique of Judgement that organisms:
in contrast to machines, are self-reproducing, self-organizing wholes.  In a machine, according to Kant, the parts only exist for each other, in the sense of supporting each other within a functional whole.  In an organism, the parts exist by means of each other, in the sense of producing one another.  (Ibid., pp 21-22)

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