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

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Gem of a Book 1

A Gem of a Book
Picture of a Wolf - in public domain

I have always liked making discoveries, whether that is of a personal sort or of a simple fact like some interesting piece of scientific knowledge. However, few discoveries are as pleasant and pleasurable as that of a good book. The book in question, which I have just finished reading, is called The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness (Granta, London, 2008)

Good books are well written, and then as well as that they leave us richer for having read them. Mark Rowlands (professor of philosophy at Miami University) writes clearly and with an almost incredible lightness of style for a philosopher. There is nothing heavy, whatsoever, in this memoir of ten years he spent with a huge wolf in tow as a pet. Indeed, most memoirs are quite light, because they claim to be nothing less than that, that is, reflections from a certain angle, or from some point of view or other, or to be dealing with a particular theme in the life of the author. Rowland’s theme here is just that: life lived with a wolf as a pet and what he learned from that relationship on the meaning of life and death; love and hate; happiness and pain – all topics which have graced the works of literati, artists, theologians and philosophers over hundreds of years.

However, what struck this reader was the author’s conversational style which literally brought one into Rowland’s confidence immediately. One felt, when reading this short memoir that one was being regaled by a good storyteller. What better praise could one give any memoir worth its salt? Also, what struck this reader was the author’s honesty of intention and style and his often strong self-questioning. Indeed, one would not have expected anything less from any philosopher indeed, or from anyone who would wish to call themselves such, as surely self-questioning and scepticism, especially with respect to one’s own motivations, are the sine qua non of philosophy qua philosophy.

I do not keep a dog or a cat and so I cannot be accused of coming to this book with an animal lover’s bias, nor am I vegetarian like Mark Rowlands. While I have no overtly strong biases towards animals, I do consider myself a dog lover insofar as I had a dog for a number of years as a boy and adolescent. I have refused to keep one since as I am not at home long enough in Ireland each year to keep one and kennel expenses and loneliness would be other factors I’d rather not endure. However, when I retire, I have promised myself the benefits of keeping one because then I would have more than enough time to care for the poor animal in question. I abhor, consequently, the idea of animals as presents at Christmas time (or any time) if the receiver isn’t fully committed to the implications of ownership. Thoughts of abandoned puppies distress me as no doubt they do you!

Over the years, I have always noticed the difference in children raised with animals from those who are not so raised. I believe such children appreciate life more and begin to learn about life and death all the more quickly through having pets. I have also noticed how different dogs have different personalities and that they can be sad and lonely as well as happy and convivial. I have always believed that we have much to learn from our animal friends.

I have mentioned in these pages before my respect for and admiration of the writings of the philosopher Dr. John Gray who wrote the wonderful little classic, Straw Dogs, a book I also reviewed in these pages. I have long thought that we human beings have suffered for generations immemorial from a huge ego problem, both at personal and group or nation level, and that central to most, if not all, the crises to hit this planet has been that same ego. Professor Gray was the first modern philosopher I read to have put words and indeed serious thought and reflection into these gut feelings and sporadic thoughts I have had with respect to humankind’s flaws over the years.

Gray’s argument is that humankind has indeed over-rated itself. I don’t remember this author mentioning anything about the gender balance in his arguments about this egotistical over-rating, but it appears to this writer here that men are the greater culprits with respect to ego-inflation. After all, practically all the builders of human society have been men - in the structural sense solely, I mean. Perhaps women have been the real builders in terms of the rearing of the young? However, let me leave the feminist reading of this phenomenon of over-inflating and exaggerating the importance of the place of humankind in the scheme of things one side for the moment. It is a topic I could possibly revisit at some future time in these pages.

It appears to me that Rowlands has a lot in common with Gray on this issue of humankind’s gross self-inflation. I really appreciated the latter’s disabusing my mind of the careless use of the term “human being,” which over-ontologises, if I may coin a word or indulge in a neologism here, the very nature of his existence as such. “Being” (qua ontology) is a loaded word in that sense. We never speak of canine beings (dogs) or feline beings (cats) because we reserve “being” in that sense to the higher species alone, that of Homo Sapiens, God or whoever or whatever help us! In this regard, I have always, consequently, loved the Dalai Lama’s, and others from the East indeed, use of the wonderful phrase “all sentient beings.” And so Professor Gray humbled me with his term “human animal” which I fully endorse and am beginning to like much.

Now, let’s not forget here that wonderful lover of animals himself, the great St Francis of Assisi. He called all the animals his brothers and sisters and composed prayers with these endearing terms in them. No animal lover could possibly forget the example of this great little saint. Indeed St Francis also called his own animal body his brother. This showed, I believe, a wonderful understanding of the centrality of the body to the human condition. Unfortunately, Western Christianity and indeed Western Philosophy, strengthened by Cartesian dualism of the ghost (soul) in the machine (body) sundered body and soul in so radical a way as to lead to the complete despising of the latter and the exaggeration of the importance of the former.

As I grow older and my body is beginning to fail me in little, but unfortunately accumulative, ways I am learning that I am a human animal as well as a human being. Human animal as a term brings with it an appreciation of all the sufferings that go with the animal body, as well as the good points too, of course, like its achievements in sport and so on. That the body grows old and dies is a central lesson that pets can teach us, and, goodness, if we are willing learners, they teach us much. Mark Rowlands is a dog-lover, vegetarian and philosopher. But, more than that, he is a humble and willing learner. I will write some more reflections on this book over the next several days, but I will finish this post with this short quotation from the book in question:
If I wanted a one-sentence definition of human beings, this would do: humans are the animals that believe the stories they tell about themselves. Humans are credulous animals.” (Op. cit. supra, p. 2)

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.