Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Web of Life 7

Immanuel Kant:

One cannot study modern philosophy without referring to one of the greatest philosophers that ever lived, namely the German Immanuel Kant (1724 –  1804). To give this some context remember that the great English artist, engraver and poet William Blake was born in 1757 and died in 1827.    Kant is seen as a major figure in the history and development of philosophy. German and European thinking progressed much as a result of his efforts, and his influence still inspires philosophical work today. He aimed to resolve disputes between the empirical and rationalist approaches to knowledge. The former asserted that all knowledge comes through experience while the latter maintained that reason and innate ideas were prior. Kant argued that experience is purely subjective without first being processed by pure reason. He also said that using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to theoretical illusions. The free and proper exercise of reason by the individual was both a theme of the Enlightenment, and of Kant's approaches to the various problems of philosophy.

Dr Fritjof Capra reminds us that this same 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 and also that he used 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)

Returning to the Romantic Roots

Romantic view of the Garravogue River, Sligo, July 2006

Romanticism was essentially a return to strong emotion(s) as an authentic source of aesthetic experience in counter-movement to the rationalist tendency espoused and practised by the Enlightenment movement.  It has long been accepted that periods of conservation and conservatism are followed by periods of renewal and liberalism.  Periods of seeming sterility are followed by periods of creativity.  In common parlance people refer to "swings and roundabouts" or "ups and downs" of the progression of history.  Romanticism placed a new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity and indeed wildness and ferocity of untamed nature. Qualities like spontaneity, passion and a return to folk memory, folk art and the "language of the common man" (Wordsworth) were all invoked among other kindred qualities.

The German scholar and poet Johann Wolgang von Goethe spoke passionately about nature, another great Romantic concern as "one great organic whole."  Now this idea of the Earth's being alive is an ancient one indeed.  It can be traced way back to prehistory even, that is, to a time before written records of human activity began.  From the Neolithic through the Bronze Ages, the societies of Old Europe worshipped numerous female deities as incarnations of Mother Earth.  This sensitivity to the "one great organic whole" persisted for many hundreds of years until the severe break inaugurated by the Cartesian image of the world as a machine.  While there were indeed some infatuations with this "one great organic whole" all during the course of history, most modern scientists followed in the footsteps of Descartes in untenanting the world of its great organismic oneness.  

Hence, it is in the tradition of Goethe's Romantic understanding of the organic unity of the Earth that we can assuredly say that James Lovelock's more recent Gaia hypothesis finds its home.  Capra maintains that biologists and zoologists managed to stay somewhat more loyal to this more Romantic vision than did their contemporaries from other scientific disciplines over the course of history.  This is not surprising because they were dealing with real living things as opposed to chemicals in a laboratory or to the abstract theories of physicists.


The history of the science of biology is a rich and interesting one indeed, Capra argues, and one can see why.  After all the subject or object of its study is the very nature of life itself.  Vitalism and organicism  were and are movements or beliefs opposed to the reduction of biology to chemistry or physics.  As Dr Capra expresses it:

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 systems theorists would put it several decades later, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. (The Web of Life, p. 25)
Biologists could literally see the limitations of the reductionist model of science in line with that of Descartes, dramatically so indeed with respect to the problems of cell development and differentiating.  In the very early stages of the development of higher organisms cells double continually in number.  Now since the genetic information is the same in each cell, how then can these cells become different cells like muscle cells, blood cells, bone cells, eye cells, nerve cells, brain cells and so on?  Here we have an instance of where the whole is more than the sum of its parts visibly and demonstrably.  What is this "whole" or this "more"?  That is the question , and a very good one it is indeed.

Vitalists assert that some nonphysical entity. force or field must be added in to the recipe for life, if I may use a metaphor.  In other words the laws of physics and of chemistry are not enough alone to explain or understand life in itself.  Organismic biologists maintain that this additional ingredient is no so much added to the recipe as it were; rather it is an ingredient already immanent in the "organization" or "organizing relations" in life itself.  We will attempt to tease these ideas out in my next post. 

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)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Web of Life 5

From Parts to the Whole

Spinning Wheel, Ionad an Bhlascaoid, November, 2005

I remember hearing the statement "The whole is more than the sum of its parts" way back in the mid to late 1970s.  Looking for the provenance of this insight has yielded up three sources (i) Aristotle in his Metaphysica, (ii) Max Wertheimer in his Gestalt theory (1920s) and (iii) SYNERGETICS: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking by R. Buckminster Fuller in collaboration with E. J. Applewhite (Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. 1975, 1979)

Tip out the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto a table and you will have, say 1,000 pieces if it is a fairly decent sized puzzle.  Before you, there on the table, you will have the sum of a thousand parts.  Obviously there is a picture (the whole) there potentially.  When the pieces, after great care, concentration and effort, have been put together we will get the "more" of the picture.  Random parts do not make the whole.  Likewise 1000 Lego bricks spread out upon a table are very much "less" than those structures into which they can be formed by a creative mind  even though they are the very same in number.  Dismember the body of a dead animal and attempt to put it back together and one will readily see that the whole is indeed "greater" or "more than" the sum of its parts.  There is something in the "wholeness" of a specific thing that is "more than" the sum of its individual parts.

Looking through microscopes, and even telescopes, we can see parts of something which are not visible at all to the naked eye.  From its origins, science has worked by cutting things up into their constituent parts and endeavouring to go ever deeper into a specific object to arrive at its smallest possible unit, called traditionally the atom by the atomists in Ancient Greece.  This traditional emphasis on parts has been called the mechanistic approach, the reductionist approach or the atomistic approach.  Indeed, this was the worldview or weltanschauung came to the fore after the demise, or at least the eclipse in certain quarters, of the Medieval worldview roughly around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  This new scientific view saw the world essentially as a machine.  As Capra succinctly puts it: "This radical change was brought about by the new discoveries in physics, astronomy and mathematics, known as the Scientific Revolution and associated with the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Bacon and Newton." (The Web of Life, p. 19)  Now things had to be measured and quantified mathematically and scientifically.  In the pursuit of such mensuration and attention to details (or parts), sight was indeed lost of the overall picture or pattern or shape or whole.  Indeed, Descartes separated the human person into distinct areas of Mind and Matter (Body): He believed in an independent nonmaterial soul inhabiting and finding expression in a mechanically operated body. 

The Whole

Atlantic Ocean, Kerry, November, 2005

Now in the twentieth century there was a concerted effort to holism in certain areas of the natural and human sciences.  The emphasis on the whole has been named variously as holistic, organismic or ecological.  Overall this holistic thrust or trend in science may be called systemic thinking.  In the book under review, Dr Fritjof Capra uses "systemic" and "ecological" synonymously.  The first term is just more technical than the second, but their meaning is the same.  Essentially, systems thinking was pioneered by the biologists, who emphasized the view of living organisms as integrated wholes.

The Web of Life 4

Ecological Strands

Ponte Vecchio, Firenze, July, 2004
Philosophically there are three strands in ecology, viz., deep ecology, social ecology and feminist ecology (or ecofeminism), each of which "does what it says on the tin."  These schools of thought don't conflict at all - rather they complement one another to give an overall comprehensive vision.  When one looks at social ecology, Capra argues, and he is correct in this assertion, one finds that many of our social and economic structures and indeed their linked technologies are rooted in domination, patriarchy, capitalism and racism.  All of these latter qualities are exploitative of women and of all kinds of sentient life in our world.  On ecofeminists, here is what Dr.Capra has to say:
Ecofeminists see the patriarchal domination of women by men as the prototype of all domination and exploitation in the various hierarchical, militaristic, capitalist, and industrialist forms.  They point out that the exploitation of nature, in particular, has gone hand in hand with that of women, who have been identified with nature throughout the ages.  This ancient association of woman and nature links women's history and the history of the environment, ans is the source of a natural kinship between feminism and ecology.  (The Web of Life, p. 9)
Changing our Thinking and our Values

Cognitive therapy speaks about changing our irrational thoughts to rational ones to effect a change in our feelings.  In like manner, changing our thinking also effects a change in our value systems too.  Now this is an important point.  What is the good in effecting a change in our ways of thinking if we do not become agents of that change in the world?  Being agents of change requires us to be ethical people who act.  Capra underlines this point quite forcefully where he says that shifts in paradigms require not only an expansion of our perceptions and ways of thinking, but also in our values.  Let us listen to his erudite words:
And here it is interesting to note the striking connection between the changes of thinking and of values.  Both of them may be seen as shifts from self-assertion to integration.  These two tendencies - the self-assertive and the integrative - both aspects of all living systems.  Neither of them is intrinsically good or bad.  What is good, or healthy, is a dynamic balance; what is bad, or unhealthy, is imbalance - over-emphasis of one tendency and neglect of the other... (Ibid., p. 9)
As we have seen, when we were discussing psychotherapy, the concept of integration was paramount in all takes on that phenomenon.  We literally will not grow as persons if we do not integrate all aspects of our personality into the Self or Soul. Every living system - biological as well as social - has two tendencies - one to assert itself and survive - ever so important.  It also has a tendency to integrate aspects of itself to refine, purify and make it's Self ever more whole.  In the West we have long valued the rational (often seen as a masculine quality, and often linked to power and domination) and this quality would be essentially ASSERTIVE.  Now the intuitive side of our character (often seen as a feminine quality and linked with powerlessness and passivity) would be seen as INTEGRATIVE.    Another quality, that of competition (often linked again with masculinity, power and domination) is also essentially ASSERTIVE while its opposite co-operation (also often viewed as a feminine quality and linked with passivity) is essentially INTEGRATIVE.  The rational and intuitive pair above are qualities associated with thinking, while competition and co-operation are qualities that are values which lead to action.  We need a healthy balance of these opposite poles - the ASSERTIVE and INTEGRATIVE in humankind if we are to effect holistic change in our world.

Another important point that Capra underscores in our modern world is the paradigm shift from HIERARCHY to NETWORK in social organizations.  Now this is where the Roman Catholic hierarchical model of the Church has gone so wrong.  They are still operating out of the old worldview of centralized control and power.  No wonder we have had the horrible and shameful episodes of the covering up of clerical child sex abuse.  This most definitely is an horrific consequence of blind allegiance to an outmoded  worldview.  Now, the second term used at the beginning of this paragraph, NETWORK is a central metaphor in ecology, and a far more holistic and embracing term this is.

Il Torre Pendente, Pisa, July 2004
Once again, we may ask where do our values lie?  One could argue that the values of any centralized social system be it dictatorial, fascist, communist or capitalist (or even centralized church power) is essentially anthropocentric - in other words man is the centre of all things therein.  The irony with respect to very centralized systems of church power like the Roman Catholic one (and many other religions, too, obviously) is that it is anything but God-centered - it is in fact man-centered as man has made God very much in his own image.  Likewise, it is no surprise that all these centralized church systems are run by men, so anthropocentric is a very appropriate word in this context.  Now  the new paradigm of DEEP ECOLOGY is very much based on earth-centered values which as we have already argued are very feminist or woman-centered ones.  The Earth or Gaia has always been a She!

In the Scientific Revolution, which occurred in the seventeenth century values were always separated from facts.  Of course, such an assumption is just that - an assumption that is simply not supported by facts.  All scientific facts have emerged, and still do indeed, out of "constellation of human perceptions, values and actions - in one word, out of a paradigm - from which they cannot be separated." (Ibid., p. 11)  In other words, scientists always have to be responsible for their research not only intellectually but morally, too.

Expanding our notion of Self

Deep ecology brings with it a deepening of our understanding not alone of the world but of the SELF.  We are part of the living web or living network of things and our very Soul or Self is thus ecologically deepened.  Capra quotes Arne Naess, the founder of the concept of Deep Ecology, and his quotation is worth reproducing in full here:
Care flows naturally if the 'self' is widened and deepened so that protection of free Nature is felt and perceived as protection of ourselves... Just as we need no morals to make us breed... [so] if your 'self' in the wide sense embraces another being, you need no moral exhortation to show care... You care for yourself without feeling any moral pressure to do it... If reality is like it is experienced by the ecological self, our behaviour naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics. (Quoted ibid., p. 12)
In this sense, then, deep ecologists speak about "the greening of the self." (Joanna Macy)  Indeed, the terms 'transpersonal ecology' (Warwick Fox) and 'eco-psychology' (Theodore Roszak) have been coined to describe this "greening of the self" and to underscore that this is essentially a psychological link or connection rather trhan a logical one. 

In short, then, we can say that there has been a shift from a rather "neutral" understanding of physics to a dynamic understanding of the LIFE SCIENCES.